Monday, 22 December 2014

Super Skrtel saves a point against Arsenal

Martin Skrtel’s header deep into injury time rescued a draw for Liverpool from a game they deserved to win.

Anfield enjoyed 100 minutes of action packed and thrilling football on Sunday teatime, as Liverpool and Arsenal produced their customary contest to remember. Ultimately, though, both sets of supporters left with mixed emotions. Kopites were delighted with the grit and determination shown to grab a late equaliser but frustrated not to claim three points from a game they should have comfortably won, while Gunners were gutted to concede late on but, on reflection, probably accept that they did not deserve more than a point.

Liverpool entered the match with a little bit of momentum following their victory against Bournemouth in midweek, and boss Brendan Rodgers broadly stuck with the same starting line-up, with Sakho coming in for the injured Lovren the only change. The move paid off, as the Reds proceed to comprehensively dominate the first half, enjoying a remarkable 79% of possession during the first 17 minutes. Unfortunately, however, for all their possession, Liverpool sill struggled to really test Arsenal stopper Wojciech Szczesny.

On the left wing, Lazar Markovic posed a potent threat, building on his promising performance in midweek and furthering his claims for more regular first team football. On 12 minutes, the Serbian’s pass put in Adam Lallana for the first goalscoring chance of the match, which the former Southampton star smashed just over the bar.

Slowly but surely, Markovic is improving
He then had two chances in quick succession just after the half hour mark, seeing Szczesny spread himself brilliantly to save his slightly disappointing effort after he’d cleverly broke into the box and then striking into the stands from the edge of the box after good build up play from Sterling.

Philippe Coutinho was another stand-out performer, pulling the strings in the middle and causing Arsenal’s defence all sorts of problems. Moreover, crucially he finally produced an end product, opening the scoring on the stroke of half time in superb fashion. Arsenal lost possession in their own half and, after Henderson had found Coutinho, the diminutive Brazilian somehow worked a yard of space for himself before pulling the trigger and driving the ball into the bottom left corner off the post.

It was a tremendous effort from Coutinho, and just reward for Liverpool’s complete and utter dominance right from the first whistle. It was immensely irritating, therefore, to see Arsenal, who had put in a woeful first half display, pinch an entirely unmerited equaliser with seconds of first half injury time left, although the Reds didn’t help themselves with some shoddy defending from another set piece, which Alexis Sanchez won with some amateur dramatics.

The resulting free kick was kept alive by the visitors in the box as the hosts repeatedly tried but failed to make a clearance. Eventually, Skrtel unacceptably lost an aerial battle with Debuchy, allowing the French defender to head home from close range in front of the stunned Kop.

Coutinho gave Liverpool a deserved lead...

...but Arsenal hit back straight away through Debuchy
No Premier League side has conceded more goals from free kick situations than the three let in by Liverpool, who must learn to defend, not just set pieces but in general, as a matter of urgency.

Although evidently remaining the inferior of the two teams, Arsenal improved after the break, their best performer during the first half Santi Cazorla curling over from 20 yards four minutes after the restart. In response, Lucas predictably shot over when presented with a good opportunity on the edge of the box and Gerrard stooped low to head just over after Sterling had cheekily used his hand to round the out-rushing Szczesny.

The sucker punch came just after the hour mark when Arsenal produced their best move of the match to claim the lead against the run of play. Cazorla got to the dead-ball line and pulled it back for the unmarked Giroud, who turned home from close range as Liverpool’s poorly positioned centre backs watched on despairingly.

Giroud strikes low through Jones
Liverpool’s defence deserves plenty of criticism for their failure to recognise and combat the threat posed by the lurking Giroud, but at the same time Arsenal must be given credit for their clinical finishing. At that point, they’d found the net with six consecutive attempts on target, beating Brad Jones twice and Newcastle’s Jak Alnwick four times.

What Liverpool wouldn’t give for that efficiency in front of goal; the Reds’ profligacy was pathetic in comparison, as only ten of their 27 shots were on target. Sterling, Coutinho, Gerrard and Lucas all went close as the home side continued to push, while Fabio Borini, introduced for Markovic with 20 minutes remaining, made an impact on the match. Unfortunately, it was on balance a negative one.

His obvious desire to prove himself was pleasing, and he tested the goalkeeper on two occasions, Szczesny tipping his glancing header over and parrying away the Italian’s strike at the near post. However, he stupidly got himself sent off in injury time by picking up two eminently avoidable bookings.

The first one was for slamming the ball into the turf in protest at a throw-in decision, while the second came only three minutes later when he nonsensically went into a challenge with Cazorla with a ludicrously high foot. He could have no complaints when referee Michael Oliver dismissed him.

Admirably, the ten-man Liverpool battled on, Sterling shooting over and Gerrard testing the keeper with a decent effort from range. They eventually got their reward for their efforts seven minutes into nine minutes of injury time, which had been added on after an earlier head injury to Skrtel. The wounded Slovakian rose highest to magnificently head home Lallana’s right wing corner.

Skrtel's leveller felt like a winner
It was a brilliant goal that felt like a winner due to the nature of it coming so late on at the conclusion of another pulsating and thoroughly entertaining Liverpool-Arsenal match. Unfortunately, the Reds didn’t manage to get the win that would have narrowed the gap between them and Arsenal to two points, but at least Rodgers’ team didn’t lose ground to the Gunners, which would have left their top four aspirations in tatters.

Furthermore, this was a much improved performance which, when combined with the display at Bournemouth, will give Liverpool substantial momentum heading into three very winnable matches against Burnley, Swansea and Leicester over Christmas and the New Year. Win those, and we’ll be able to say that the Reds have turned the corner come 2015.


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