Monday, 17 February 2014

Reds robbed by the ref in Arsenal Cup exit

What has Howard Webb got against Liverpool?

His refusal to award Luis Suarez a spot kick after he was floored by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s blatant foul was as inexplicable as his decision to turn a blind eye to Samuel Eto’o’s foul on the Uruguayan at Stamford Bridge in the Reds’ final fixture of 2013.

That decision midway through the second period was one of the main determinants of Liverpool’s defeat because, had a penalty been given and converted, it would have been all square again at 2-2 and the visitors would have enjoyed all the momentum, while the hosts would have clearly been on the back foot. As a result, a draw and a replay at Anfield would have been the least Liverpool could have expected to take from the match.

As it turned out, Liverpool crashed out of the FA Cup at the fifth round stage as they were unable to secure the equaliser that their performance arguably merited in the closing stages of the second half.

Although his shockingly bad decision at a crucial point of the match played a vital role in determining the outcome of the contest, Webb wasn’t solely to blame for Liverpool’s loss, of course.  A surprising lack of clinical finishing in front of goal proved the Reds’ downfall as, unlike last Saturday at Anfield, Liverpool spurned several great goalscoring opportunities.

The usually prolific Daniel Sturridge was particularly profligate. It didn’t help, either, that they faced Lukasz Fabianski in goal, who pulled off a string of vital saves and was arguably man of the match. The pair faced off together twice in the opening four minutes, as Liverpool quite feasibly could have replicated their start to the League match.

First, the England striker surged into the box to latch on to Gerrard’s pass but saw his low strike blocked by Fabianski. Then, Suarez superbly clipped the ball over the Gunners’ defence to find Sturridge, who rounded Fabianski but could only fire into the side-netting from an increasingly tight angle.

Against the run of play, the home side scored the crucial opening goal after quarter of an hour. Arsenal debutant Yaya Sanogo saw his goal bound volley blocked by Steven Gerrard, but the rebound fell favourably for Oxlade-Chamberlain, who found the back of the net from close range.

Oxlade-Chamberlain gave the Gunners the lead against the run of play
Determined to save face after their humiliating 5-1 defeat at Anfield a week earlier, Arsene Wenger’s men were in the ascendancy for the rest of the first half after claiming the lead, Podolski squandering a chance to double their advantage when he drilled high over the bar on 37 minutes.

Either side of the interval, though, Luis Suarez had two fantastic opportunities to level the score line. Both times he was denied by Fabianski.

On 43 minutes, Joe Allen’s long ball forward found the number seven, who was thwarted by Fabianski as the Pole got down well to prevent his volleyed effort finding the net. Then, soon after the restart, the pair combined again, but Suarez was frustratingly denied by a fine stop from the in-form goalkeeper.

To make matters worse, Arsenal went down the other end and scored an exquisite goal to really change the dynamics of the game considerably in their favour. Oxlade-Chamberlain was too quick for Daniel Agger down the right hand side and the Dane couldn’t stop the 20-year old pulling a pinpoint pass back to Podolski, who culminated an impressive passing move with a simple side-footed finish into the net from close range.

Arsenal's second made Liverpool's task doubly difficult
It was a crucial goal as, at 1-0, Liverpool still had a great chance to get back into the match, but the Gunners’ second strike just made it that much more difficult for the Merseysiders.

The Reds’ performance did step up a gear, though, during the rest of the second half and, after Suarez sent a volley dipping just over the bar and Sturridge smacked one straight at Fabianski, Gerrard reduced the arrears from the penalty spot, calmly converting from 12 yards after Podolski tripped Suarez in the area.

The skipper is superb from the spot
It was admittedly a soft spot kick, but Arsenal could have few complaints, unlike the visitors, who had every reason to vociferously protest six minutes later, when Suarez was barged to the ground by a ridiculous challenge from Oxlade-Chamberlain in the box.

It was a stonewall spot kick but Webb, despite being in the perfect position to see the incident, patronisingly and dismissively wagged his finger rather than pointing it to the spot, as everyone in the ground had expected him to do.

How is Webb supposedly the best referee in the country?
Liverpool continued to probe, nonetheless, and had an excellent chance to equalise with five minutes left on the clock when Fabianski made his first mistake of the match. The number 21 unwisely rushed out to try and punch clear Gerrard’s free kick, allowing Agger the chance to head into an empty goal. Unfortunately, he headed Liverpool’s last chance of the contest just wide of the target.

At the end of the day, as disappointing as it is to exit the FA Cup, Liverpool could be proud of their performance. Although they didn’t reach the heights of footballing perfection reached during their annihilation of Arsenal at Anfield, they certainly performed far better than they did in the League match at the Emirates, when they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat following a very poor display.

A quarter-final tie at home to Everton would have been an exciting prospect had Liverpool emerged victorious at the Emirates, but the FA Cup has never been a priority this season. Champions League qualification is all-important and a Cup run would have been a nice cherry on top of the cake but, if we finish in the top four, few will deem the season unsuccessful simply because we failed to progress further in the FA Cup.

The important thing now is to concentrate on the 12 ‘Cup finals’ Liverpool have during the remainder of the campaign, starting with Swansea’s visit to Anfield next Sunday.


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