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Arsenal show guts for fight

The winner was the sort of effort that left opponents and commentators sucking in their breath at the sheer audacity of Arsenal's football in the early months of last season. But the old, flowing, swaggering style of Arsenal - the team who manager Arsene Wenger dared to believe were all but unbeatable - appears to have gone. And that may be no bad thing for a side who became so fond of their own cuteness last term that they continually allowed opponents to mug them of points while they were preoccupied preening their peacock feathers.

This was the sort of performance that had their former manager, George Graham, purring at its sheer gutsiness and professionalism. Given the manner in which Arsenal achieved their win, one would not have been surprised to see Graham's head poking from the dugout.

Even Robert Pires's brilliantly struck winner, a curler into the top right-hand corner from 30 yards, was the product not of a succession of mesmerising, high-speed passes, but the persistence of Edu in twice winning back the ball, first from Steven Gerrard and then Steve Finnan.

Therein, of course, also lies the problem of Liverpool, with a defence that once could only be penetrated by professional safe-crackers but which has now taken over the leaded boots of its attackers.

It was the Liverpool forwards who caught the eye with their first-half flair, playing the sort of attacking football that people believed was beyond them, almost the sort of stuff which won Arsenal all those plaudits last autumn. At the heart of most of it was Harry Kewell, who thrust the final daggers into Arsenal's championship hopes last season by inspiring Leeds to victory at Highbury.

Arsenal were hanging on after Kewell's left-footed volley in the 14th minute, Wenger praising his team's resilience which, in truth, was more like blind panic as Michael Owen outfoxed the entire defence before heading over and Kolo Toure resorted to booting clearances miles into the air.

Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier was not exaggerating when he said Arsenal hardly had a kick in the first half, and even Wenger conceded that his side could have been 3-0 down by the interval.

Astonishingly, they were level. Liverpool's defence again froze as Edu rose to head Pires's free-kick and, when Sami Hyypia finally responded, it was only to stab the ball over his own line.

Although the goal did nothing to stem the Liverpool flow, Wenger shrewdly observed that "it was a mental blow to a struggling side" and, despite renewing their all-out assault at the beginning of the second half, this time the storm quickly blew out.

The freak injury to Owen as he attempted to block an Ashley Cole clearance, which led to his substitution in the 72nd minute, was the final blow for the home side. The forward will have a scan on his injured right shin today before he knows whether he can join the England squad preparing to face Turkey.

Arsenal had already tucked away their stunning winner by then, of which Wenger said: "It was just Pires. He scores a lot of goals like that in training. I left him out for a couple of games but he was outstanding today. The fact that we came back to win from 1-0 down showed the mental strength of the team."

It also demonstrated the fragility of the Liverpool psyche, who seem not quite to believe in their ability to finish off the best sides. Having held bragging rights over Arsenal for years, they have now failed to beat them since the 2001 FA Cup final.

Houllier had described this as a make-or-break game for his team, following last weekend's 3-2 defeat at Charlton, but yesterday he refused to throw in the towel in the title race - though he might have felt like covering his head with it. He said: "I am pleased with the performance but disappointed in the result. You don't expect me to commit suicide now do you?"

This third defeat of the season leaves Liverpool already nine points behind Arsenal and, with Chelsea and Manchester United also clear of them, Champions League qualification again looks to be their most realistic target.

Match details

Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Biscan, Hyypia, Riise, Diouf, Gerrard, Diao (Welsh 83), Kewell, Owen (Heskey 72), Smicer (Le Tallec 42).
Subs Not Used: Kirkland, Henchoz.
Booked: Biscan, Welsh.
Goals: Kewell 14.

Arsenal: Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Parlour, Edu, Silva, Pires, Henry, Aliadiere (Wiltord 73).
Subs Not Used: Stack, Keown, Cygan, Kanu.
Booked: Cole, Parlour.
Goals: Hyypia 31 og, Pires 68.

Att: 44,374
Ref: G Barber (Hertfordshire).

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