Kevin McCarra at Highbury
Arsenal's season of transition has looked more like transformation in the past week. Form, mood, results and even luck have changed. Just when Arsène Wenger's team were getting ready to curse themselves yesterday for letting a win elude them, good fortune raised further the high spirits that have seized Arsenal since putting Real Madrid out of the Champions League.
In the 81st minute Xabi Alonso, perhaps as the result of a slip, caught Mathieu Flamini for his second booking of the day and the Liverpool midfielder was sent off. Two minutes later Steven Gerrard failed to notice a man who normally has the eyes of the whole stadium upon him. Just as he had in the mistake that led to a late penalty in England's 2-1 defeat by France at Euro 2004, the Liverpool captain rolled an intended back pass to Thierry Henry. The forward side-stepped the goalkeeper Jose Reina to roll in the winner.
A sense of justice as well as joy intoxicated Arsenal. While Liverpool were not entirely without chances they had been inferior to a team who could now rally to take fourth place in the Premiership. There is a relief about Arsenal that must make them tingle, as if they have now established beyond question that all the wretchedness is in the past.
Cesc Fábregas's period of personal doubt is over. The single vexation here was the decision not to award a free-kick when he was fouled by Alonso in the build-up to Liverpool's goal. Apart from that the teenager got his own way despite the experience of the visitors in midfield as he built moves, subtly changed the direction of attacks and set up the opener in the 21st minute.
Fabregas sauntered over the halfway line before releasing a pass that Jamie Carragher failed to block with his lunging attempt at an interception. Henry was free on the left, a position from which he always looks confident of scoring. He opened his right foot and bent a shot past Reina and inside the far post for his first goal of the match.
Liverpool, it is almost superfluous to say, pine for class of that sort. No recognised forward has scored a Premiership goal for them in 2006 and with the syndrome becoming so entrenched there are moments when, with a mere nine months of the year remaining, it can feel as if time is running out. That, of course, is absurd but fatalism takes root in incidents such as the one in the 30th minute, when Peter Crouch headed wide from Steve Finnan's cross.
This fixture was held in the clutches of last week's Champions League experiences. Rafael Benítez's team persevered here, but they were a side in mourning for the European Cup. Arsenal, on the other hand, are a side inspired by the dream that they will inherit the trophy. The brightness of their play stemmed from the inner glow of eliminating Real Madrid.
A tight hamstring ruled out Jose Antonio Reyes yesterday, but an alteration was needed in any case so that Henry would not have to spend an arduous 90 minutes as the lone striker for the second time in five days. Emmanuel Adebayor partnered him, showing strength, industriousness and mobility, but also firing high with a clumsy finish from the captain's cut-back in the eight minute.
Once Henry had given Arsenal the lead Emmanuel Eboué, erupting from right-back, could have doubled the advantage after a one-two with Adebayor but tried to cross when he could have finished. Liverpool hardly seemed to have a role of their own in that period. The tactics, with Jan Kromkamp on the right of three attacking midfielders, were misconstrued even if he was meant to check Arsenal's build-up early on that flank.
Henry should have put his side 2-0 ahead in the 50th minute after an exchange with Robert Pires, who had come on for the injured Freddie Ljungberg, but fired wide. Such misses usually have an ominous tone to them and with Liverpool improving a little following the introduction of Harry Kewell for Kromkamp, the fragility of Arsenal's position became conspicuous.
After 75 minutes Fabregas ought to have been given a free-kick for a foul by Alonso, but the referee Steve Bennett detected no offence. Play continued and Gerrard smashed a 30 yarder. It was natural that the goalkeeper Jens Lehmann should not hold the drive, but instead of turning it away he beat the ball up into the air and Luis García, challenging resolutely, headed into the net.
The sense of relief for Liverpool was to be short-lived and it is likely that they will have to make do with third place in the Premiership. Their season may be petering out but Arsenal, who saw Pires hit a post in the 88th minute and Henry demand a good save from Reina after that, will be peeved that there are not even more fixtures still to be enjoyed.
Man of the match Cesc Fábregas (Arsenal)
Jens Lehmann, Emmanuel Eboue, Philippe Senderos, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Aleksandr Hleb, Fredrik Ljungberg (Robert Pires), Gilberto Silva, Emmanuel Adebayor (Dennis Bergkamp), Thierry Henry
Liverpool line-up at LFChistory [remark by LFChistory]
'France all over again'
Lisbon, June 14, 2004
France 2 England 1
Zidane 90, 90pen Lampard 38
'It was like France all over again,' Steven Gerrard said after his misplaced back-pass allowed Thierry Henry to score the winner at Highbury. 'I was trying to kill off time and I didn't see him. The last player you want the ball to go to is the best player on the planet. It was completely my fault. I hold up my hands; it was a stupid mistake.' Two years ago, with England and France level in injury-time, a lurking Henry picked up Gerrard's attempt to reach David James and was brought down by the goalkeeper. Zinedine Zidane scored the winner from the spot.
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