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Liverpool Daily Post report

THE Arsenal fan who stood in the reception at Highbury and cited the absence of messrs Owen, Fowler and Redknapp as the deciding factors in this game long before kick-off was strangely nowhere to be seen at the final whistle.

A year ago, that assessment would probably have been spot-on. But that was then; this is now and in front of an audience of millions, Liverpool claimed a brilliant victory to show just why only the foolish will take them so lightly in the future.

They did it the hard way - finishing just one of the four clear cut chances they had - but how they deserved a win which leaves them in third place and the imaginations of their supporters working overtime.

On the ground where defensive solidity was seemingly founded, Liverpool proved just how far they have come in 12 months and why their proud boast of the best defensive record in the Premiership is not just a well-timed fluke.

How long has it been since a Liverpool side has been so well organised, displayed so much resilience, commitment, discipline and spirit?

Defensively this was as good as they have been since the days when Hansen and Lawrenson provided a formidable barrier at the back.

Something had to give before kick-off: Wenger was searching for his first-ever victory over Liverpool and Houllier had yet to claim a win in London.

Thankfully, it will be the Arsenal manager seeking to end a miserable run of 14 games when the two sides meet up again next season.

Yesterday, Wenger was out-foxed by the close friend who spent much of Friday lunchtime offering an out-pouring of admiration for his counterpart.

To a man, Liverpool followed the instructions laid out by Houllier in minute detail - defending as a team and breaking on the counter-att-

ack.

That the ultimately decisive goal after 18 minutes came directly as a result of the manager's tactical acumen should be wholly satisfying for him.

Erik Meijer was employed almost as a lone front man as Titi Camara tucked in on the left when Arsenal were in possession, with Patrik Berger pushed inside and Vladimir Smicer sticking to the script by helping out Jamie Carragher whenever there was a sniff of danger.

It was those two who surrounded Fredrik Ljungberg, wrestled possession off the Swede and watched as Steven Gerrard pounced as the loose ball squirmed free.

Once again the youngster demonstrated his passing ability with a first-time through ball which sent Camara scampering clear of the Arsenal rearguard.

With Seaman statuesque, the African refused to rush and picked his spot perfectly, curling a shot into the net for his eighth goal of the season - all of them vital in one way or another.

Having created the goal, the irrespressible Gerrard then set about pressing the advantage. He had already pointed in pain to his groin when he typified the commitment Liverpool showed as he propelled himself into a goal-saving tackle as Ljungberg looked poised to restore parity from around the penalty spot after a deft touch had duped a posse of green-shirted opponents.

It is a measure of Gerrard's rise that his substitution represented such a massive blow and as he trudged off head-bowed, so the attentions focused on Dietmar Hamann to prove he is indeed back to his best. The German didn't disappoint.

Houllier reorganised with Carragher moving into midfield and Vegard Heggem introduced at right-back where he was tested straight away as the ball was quickly shipped onto the lightning-quick Thierry Henry, whose jet-heeled acceleration took him past the Norwegian but Sander Westerveld smothered his shot.

Liverpool's problems were chiefly of their own-making as opposed to any fluency Arsenal offered. Westerveld had produced an excellent one-handed stop to repel a powerful Henry drive in the 13th minute, but that was as close as they came in the first half to breaching the rearguard.

That their efforts at fashioning an equaliser were relentless was down to Liverpool's annoying insistence at surrending possession too easily, a trait which continued to the very end.

When they did demonstrate the necessary composure they looked menacing and the unexpected bonus of a second goal should have followed shortly before the break.

Camara and Meijer, guilty of the aforementioned crime, combined on 41 minutes with the Dutch striker this time pursued by half of the Arsenal team, but he couldn't claim what would have been a perfectly timed first league goal and bring a modicum of breathing space.

As they counted their blessing, the home faithful's anxieties were soothed by highlights of the 1971 FA Cup and 1987 Littlewoods Cup finals and THAT game at Anfield on the giant screens dotted around the ground.

In truth, more inspiration could be gleaned, however, from the sight of Marc Overmars stripped for the second-half as a replacement for Emmanuel Petit.

One of the reasons Arsenal will remain in the hunt for the title regardless of this defeat and regardless of the murmurings of their manager is because of their strength in depth which saw World Cup Golden Boot winner Davor Suker confined to bench duty for 58 minutes.

When Houllier has similar resources at his disposal then he will presumably admit that Liverpool are a force to be reckoned with.

Until then he is quite right to labour the point and maintain his ultra-cautious approach.

His lack of options were further highlighted when the willing Meijer was carried off after stretching to try and reach a ball before the ineffective Patrik Vieira. Fortunately, the injury was less serious than it appeared and he tried to come back on - blissfully unaware that Danny Murphy had already been introduced.

With the threat from Arsenal still fitful amid a glut of misplaced passes of their own which left Henry and Suker isolated and anonymous, the prospect of an all-important second goal still beckoned Liverpool's way.

The supremely efficient Hamann broke away from gleefully seizing upon every 50-50 ball to lob a hopeful pass forward which Martin Keown misjudged and watched in horror as Murphy bore down on the whites of Seaman's eyes.

That Murphy stood with his head in his hands seconds later told the story.

As the absence of Owen or Fowler was momentarily rued, so the threat of it being one-miss-too-many grew.

Brazilian Silvinho's cross skidded through Westerveld's fingertips but as substitute Oleg Luzhny homed in at the far post, Dominic Matteo was on hand to deflect his effort behind.

The moment was sympomatic of Liverpool's approach; their refusal to budge never mind be beaten.

Henry headed over from the resulting corner, Overmars side-footed wide and the tension almost became unbearable as Westerveld's insistence on trying to alleviate some of the pressure off his defence saw him flap at Suker's 85th minute corner and Vieira smash the ball onto the underside of the crossbar.

There was another save to deny Henry, whose learning curve was shaped by Houllier, before Camara blazed a shot high and wide.

Not that it ultimately mattered. Liverpool stood firm. Now they must stay there.

Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman, Dixon, Keown, Grimandi, Silvinho; Parlour, Vieira, Petit (Overmars 46), Ljungberg (Luzhny 76); Bergkamp (Suker 58), Henry. Subs: Manninger, Winterburn.

Liverpool (4-5-1): Westerveld, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Smicer, Gerrard (Heggem 33), Hamann, Berger, Camara; Meijer (Murphy 54). Subs: Nielsen, Traore, Staunton.

Referee: Steve Dunn (Bristol)

Bookings: Camara (dissent 29), Parlour (foul 58)

© Liverpool Daily Post & Echo

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