IN this season of two halves, with a mesmerising championship race scarred by myriad miserable incidents, Arsenal embrace the beautiful and the beastly. Yet another Arsenal player was dismissed yesterday, the 40th under Arsene Wenger, but they responded as a calm, organised collective, not as 10 angry men, to go second in the Premiership.
Rooted in their tactical and technical superiority, Arsenal's first Premiership success here in nine years also marked Liverpool's first League defeat to any London visitors since Tottenham Hotspur dropped by in 1993. Victory was all the more remarkable because Arsenal competed for 54 minutes without Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who departed for two yellows. "Maybe we should practise playing with 10 in training," observed Wenger wryly.
Liverpool certainly had no answer to Ars- enal's dynamic display on depleted resources. Liverpool's lacklustre 11 were painfully short of real width and incisive passing.
"There was a lack of quality in our passing at vital times," conceded Phil Thompson, Liverpool's caretaker manager. "We showed our immaturity." Steven Gerrard's passes from the deep were occasionally too wayward and were picked off by alert Arsenal counter-attackers.
Ray Parlour and Kanu, who dropped back when van Bronckhorst was expelled, were outstanding in central midfield. Parlour was all running while Kanu was all cunning, lifting the ball past or around bemused Liverpool players with all the authority of the school captain in the playground. Thierry Henry, again, worked selflessly up front while Martin Keown and Sol Campbell swamped Michael Owen.
"My team has belief and character," said Wenger. "The team's soul and togetherness has been outstanding." Arsenal's manager, in a little speech that has become wearingly familiar, argued that van Bronckhorst did not deserve to be despatched by Paul Durkin for diving. "I don't want to play the paranoia bit again but maybe Durkin forgot Giovanni had already been booked," said Wenger.
Cautioned for a bad challenge on Sami Hyypia, the Dutch midfielder then fell while contesting possession with Liverpool's captain in the box. Van Bronckhorst, bizarrely wearing moulded soles rather than screw-ins, claimed he had slipped. "Giovanni told me 100 per cent absolutely he didn't dive," said Wenger. "He said he was pushed by Hyypia."
Durkin disagreed. "Following the reckless challenge on Sami Hyypia, which was clear-cut, I was following van Bronckhorst into the penalty box," said the Dorset official. "I had a really good view of it and I think he was trying to deceive me. Diving is a major problem in the game and it's got to be eradicated. I was 100 per cent sure."
A man down, Arsenal could also have been a goal down by then, Ashley Cole having cleared off the line from Owen, but the determination running through their ranks was soon apparent. Seconds before the break, Jerzy Dudek brought down Fredrik Ljungberg, who had been chasing Kanu's wonderful pass.
Durkin deemed it a penalty but not a sending-off offence because the challenge was merely "careless" not reckless, although there was no real covering defender. Henry wasted no time in putting the ball low to Dudek's right.
Thompson sent on Jari Litmanen and Vladimir Smicer who brought some creativity but Arsenal were revelling in the chance to hit on the break. After intercepting Gerrard's pass in the 53rd minute, Robert Pires ran down the left, beat Gerrard and crossed low and hard for Ljungberg, who had made a lung-breaking run to clip in No 2.
Three minutes later, Liverpool made it 2-1 when John Arne Riise and Litmanen exchanged passes and the full-back drilled the ball from left to right. Owen ballooned his shot but it lifted to the far post where Litmanen supplied the finishing touch.
Such was Liverpool's disappointing response, there appeared real logic in recruiting Nicolas Anelka, the loan star from Paris St-Germain who will be in the squad for the Boxing Day game at Aston Villa. "Anelka will bring us more quality and extra fire-power," said Thompson. An awkward character, Anelka left few friends at Highbury but Wenger wished him well. "Liverpool have done a great deal with Anelka," he said. "He is a hugely talented player with a lot of hunger after his disappointments."
Liverpool hope they are bringing in someone who will trouble opponents, not their own equilibrium. After slipping from the summit in recent days, Liverpool need to take a gamble as the stakes are raised in this compelling championship chase.
Copyright - The Telegraph