LIFE’S great certainties are death and taxes but perhaps the time has come to add another constant to that list.
After another fruitless, frustrating trip to the Emirates Stadium, Rafa Benitez must surely be wondering whether the hoodoo Arsene Wenger has over him in London will ever end.
Bursting with determination and pushing themselves to the physical limit to maintain a seven-match unbeaten run, a sense of injustice infuses Liverpool’s squad today and it is easy to see why that is so.
They have arguably never had better prospects of beating Arsenal on enemy territory since Titi Camara’s winner in February 2000 than this but a series of fine details – and a referee’s error – prevented them turning promise into points.
Had David Ngog shown great composure and had Jamie Carragher not tweaked his groin at a vital moment, Liverpool would have been able to protect a one-goal lead; as it was, Ngog missed, Carragher went off and Arsenal took full advantage.
Yet worse of all was the fact Howard Webb refused to point to the spot in the dying seconds when a Steven Gerrard free-kick was handled by Cesc Fabregas; that the Arsenal skipper later admitted he had committed a crime rubbed salt in open wounds.
What a pity. Giving the impression once again that the shoots of recovery are continuing to grow with a dogged display, the Reds deserved so much more; as it is, they must start to build all over again.
If the opening to the Merseyside derby had those spectators who were close to the action wincing, due to the ferocity of certain challenges, the start to this contest was a much more reserved affair, befitting the subdued atmosphere in the stadium.
Highbury, of course, was known as the ‘The Library’ and it appears that nearly four years after moving into this sparkling arena, the locals are still no nearer to creating an intimidating welcome for visitors.
Not that Liverpool complained. Far from it. Anxious to build on their impressive recent run of form, but mindful of the fact they had contested a war of attrition four days earlier, the gentle opening suited them.
Arsenal might have had a couple of half chances in the first 30 minutes – notably when unmarked William Gallas headed a Fabregas corner high and Nicklas Bendtner blazed over – but it was not one way traffic by any means.
Frustratingly, however, Liverpool’s wastefulness in possession meant they were unable to exert real pressure on Arsenal’s defence; time and again moments of promise would come to nothing because of skew-whiff passing.
Such a shame. If Dirk Kuyt had got his angles right or had Emiliano Insua not been so rash in wanting to release the ball, then Steven Gerrard would have been sent rampaging through.
The scowl that Gerrard flashed at both men immediately after they had found a red and white shirt rather than a black and gold one told its own story but, in a curious way, it was encouraging to see the captain so animated.
By his own admission, Gerrard has, for one reason or another, been short of top form this season but in the last 10 days there have been glimpses that he is ready to go through the gears again.
Every time Liverpool moved to within range of Arsenal’s 18-yard box, Gerrard came into view, stalking with menace and pressurising Gallas, Thomas Vermaelen, Emmanuel Eboue and Gael Clichy whenever possible.
Alas, the ball he so desperately craved never arrived and the biggest disappointment of a poor first period was the man who might have been able to help, Alberto Aquilani, was back on Merseyside recovering from a stomach upset.
It was on this ground in a Carling Cup tie, remember, that Aquilani was first introduced to Liverpool supporters and briefly showed himself to have an impressive range of passing.
Admittedly he has not had much opportunity to build on that since but the feeling persisted this would have been an ideal game to let him take his chance – Arsenal, after all, are not the type of team known for kicking opponents.
Gerrard, though, is just as good a creator as he is finisher and, given the way he was moving with intent, it was perhaps inevitable it would be he who created Liverpool’s best opening of the game early in the second period.
His beautifully weighted ball on 53 minutes should have yielded the first goal but, to every Liverpudlian’s exasperation, David Ngog never once gave the impression he was confident when running towards Manuel Almunia.
With courage in his convictions, the young Frenchman would surely have put Liverpool in front; had the opening fell to a fit Fernando Torres, for instance, there would have been only one outcome.
But, at this moment in time, Ngog just lacks that crucial bit of self-belief in games of such importance; ineffective in the Merseyside derby, it was heavy weather for him again last night.
How they were made to pay. Wenger’s men had already fashioned a number of threatening breaks, quick runners on the flanks trying to speed into dangerous areas, but Liverpool kept defending stoically – that was until they cracked on 72 minutes.
In the blink of an eye, Fabregas and Bendtner combined to send substitute Tomas Rosicky scampering down the left, who in turn fired a cross into the six yard area that Abou Diaby headed powerfully into Pepe Reina’s net.
Watch the replays of the goal again and you will see Diaby was unmarked as he settled the outcome; had Carragher been on the pitch, the Frenchman almost certainly would have found himself with some company.
Still, there is no point complaining. These things happen in football and when Ryan Babel saw a powerful drive tipped onto the bar by Almunia, it was apparent Liverpool’s luck was out. Webb’s error in injury time merely compounded matters.
Yet there is no point stewing on this result; it is not a fatal blow to ambitions and, for once, it is possible to take positive from a negative. What better place to do that than at Manchester City on Sunday week?
ARSENAL (4-5-1): Almunia; Eboue, Gallas, Vermaelen, Clichy; Arshavin (Walcott 68), Diaby, Song, Fabregas, Nasri (Rosicky 34); Bendtner (Sagna 82).
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher (Degen 55), Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Lucas (Babel 78), Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard, Rodriguez; Ngog.
Referee: Howard Webb.
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