If Liverpool are not to win the Premiership title in 2001 they are certainly determined to do the next best thing and have a large say in who does.
Seven days, six points, five goals and two clean sheets. The numbers add up to an extraordinary week for Gérard Houllier's Liverpool and, in all probability, in the fate of this season's championship contest.
The scoreline in the meeting between French heavyweights Houllier and Arsène Wenger flattered the former considerably, but, in the wake of last week's 1-0 victory at Manchester United, Liverpool are rapidly improving and the residual confidence left from that Old Trafford success so tangible it could be bottled and sold over the Christmas perfume counter.
'It is a good win,' said Houllier, making a late bid for managerial understatement of the year award. 'Not many teams win 4-0 against Arsenal and 1-0 at Old Trafford in the same week.'
Actually, Liverpool themselves did as well as that, five years ago this month under Roy Evans, beating United 2-0 and Arsenal 3-1 inside a week to launch another false dawn in the club's recent history. That championship challenge evaporated by the spring, which possibly explains why talk of title potential was muted at Anfield yesterday.
'I don't think Manchester United will drop 10 points in the second half of the season,' said Houllier, talking before the champions' meeting with Ipswich yesterday. 'I still regret that we are possibly five or six points short if we are to have a run at the Champions League. Even if we have beaten them, it doesn't mean we are at Manchester United's level. We are not. But this team will get better in the second half of the season.'
Better? Yesterday it looked good enough to easily dismiss Arsenal, who most 'experts' have nominated as runners-up elect. The excellent Steven Gerrard, irrepressible in successive games that have seen him take on and dominate Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, opened the scoring with a 23-yard right-foot shot after Vieira's clearance from Markus Babbel's long throw-in fell to him outside the area.
Arsenal began to exert some control as the half drew to a close but the game hinged on the opening moments of the second period when Sander Westerveld superbly kept out a long-range Dennis Bergkamp volley. Their frustrations mounting, Arsenal were pedestrian at the back as Emile Heskey shrugged off Martin Keown in the 61st minute, had his shot parried poorly by Alex Manninger for Michael Owen to beat Silvinho to the loose ball.
Wenger said it was that which finished his side off. 'After that we weren't able to fight back mentally any more. Maybe we were guilty of being not mentally capable of reacting, but basically the second goal was the end of the game. We were not good enough.'
Certainly Arsenal's heads dropped after the second goal and eight minutes later, a fully fledged rout was in motion. Vladimir Smicer, an efficient replacement for the disappointing Danny Murphy, threaded the ball through for Nick Barmby to lift it over Manninger.
This being Anfield, there was the opportunity for a little soap opera intrigue with Robbie Fowler, supposedly at odds with the manager and supposedly soon to be sold, brought on for the last 11 minutes. With Arsenal pushing forward, there wasspace for him to operate effectively. A deserved Fowler goal came with almost the last kick of the game, a superb finish from a tightish angle after excellent approach play by Barmby.
Saturday December 23, 2000
Liverpool (1) 4 - 0 (0) Arsenal
Westerveld; Babbel, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia; Biscan, Gerrard (McAllister), Murphy (Smicer); Barmby, Heskey, Owen (Fowler).
Manninger; Dixon, Grimandi, Keown, Luzhny (Pires), Silvinho; Ljungberg (Wiltord), Parlour, Vieira; Bergkamp (Kanu), Henry.
Referee: P. A. Durkin (Portland)
Liverpool: Carragher (43) Babbel (45)
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