Monday, April 6, 2015

Arsenal 4 Liverpool 1

We are still buzzing about Arsenal's emphatic win over their top-four rivals and their mind-blowing performance. This was a massive game potentially crucial for  the race to win a Champions League spot. It was probably more so to our opponents as another loss to the top-four contenders could possibly put Champions League qualification just out of their reach. For us, a convincing win over one of the big clubs would boost our credentials for next season's title challenge and three points would tighten our grip on a top-four finish. Liverpool were without their club captain Steven Gerrard and a defensive linchpin, Martin Skrtel through suspension, in addition to uncertainty over the fitness of key attacking players. Arsenal went into this game as odds-on favourites, backed by their recent fine run of form and a home advantage.

All our players returned from the international break unscathed, except for Danny Welbeck who missed out on England's 1-1 draw with Italy after sent back to the club for treatment for his injured knee. The England forward was only passed fit to start from the bench and as a result, Aaron Ramsey was deployed on the right flank. This was Arsene Wenger's answer to his team-selection conundrum: how to accommodate all of his three in-form midfielders; namely Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla, and Ramsey. Arsene Wenger made three changes from the side that started in Arsenal's 2-1 defeat of Newcastle two weeks ago. Hector Bellerin came into the starting lineup at the expense of Calum Chambers at the right-back, while Per Mertesacker replaced Gabriel in the central defence, paired with Laurent Koscielny. Özil, who missed the trip to Newcastle through a slight cold, started in place of Welbeck. A 20-year-old goalkeeper, Matt Macey was on the bench after Wojciech Szczesny was ruled out due to a rib injury he sustained in training (and our third-choice keeper, Emi Martinez is out on an emergency loan to Rotherham for the rest of the season). Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Flamini, Theo Walcott, and Tomas Rosicky made up the other substitutes. Although Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Debuchy, Jack Wilshere and Abou Diaby made their return from injury in a friendly match against Brentford on Tuesday, this game came too soon for them.

Arsene Wenger's tactics were spot-on and his players were on the same page. Wenger's side were physically sharp enough to execute his high pressing high-tempo game plan precisely. The Frenchman praised his players after the match.

Arsenal started the game with high intensity, harassing Liverpool's back-line, giving them no time on the ball, and inviting mistakes. Alexis and Santi went close to score in the opening minutes, with Aaron Ramsey clean through on goal, but we were unable to capitalise on our dominance in possession in the early stages. Brendan Rodgers' side steadily began to grow into the game. Just as we started thinking that we might regret later that we didn't take our opportunities when we were on top, Bellerin curled a left-footed shot into the bottom corner after collecting Ramsey's pass and dodging two defenders. It was a brilliant strike from an unexpected goalscorer with his weaker foot.

Minutes later, Özil doubled the hosts' lead by delivering a sublime free-kick after Cazorla had been flattened just outside the area. On the stroke of the half time, Alexis' clever footwork evaded Kolo Toure's marking and the Chilean sent a piledriver into the roof of the net. Arsenal were 3-0 up at half time. It was a great day for us, Gooners. It had been a long time since we saw our team play so well.

What was encouraging was that Arsenal did not take their foot off the gas in the second half. They continued to search for more goals, while they defended as a team when Liverpool attacked. The visitors were reduced to trying their luck with opportunistic shots from distance. It was a pity that we couldn't keep a clean sheet. Bellerin's unnecessary challenge on Sterling led to a penalty, which Jordan Henderson converted, giving Liverpool hope of a comeback.

However, Emre Can's sending-off in the 83rd minute extinguished any hope of Liverpool's comeback after he had brought down Welbeck for his second yellow card. As Arsenal still looked for a fourth goal to kill the game, Santi hit the woodwork in the 89th minute, but Olivier Giroud found the net in stoppage time with his beautiful curling effort, restoring the 3-goal advantage.

After the emphatic victory, Arsenal moved up to second in the table temporarily, 9 points ahead of the Merseyside club. Now we are in a great position to finish in the top-four, extending our formidable winning streak to 7 consecutive games in the league, which put us joint top of Europe's form table with Lazio. However, the Gunners' performance on this day was even more pleasing than the result. Especially, their first-half display was breathtaking both in the tempo and intensity. If we can continue producing these levels of performances for the rest of the season, we can finish at least third and retain the FA Cup.

The convincing win is a testament to this squad's progress. Last season, they suffered a few heavy defeats by the hands of their top-four rivals. This year, they proved that they could beat Man City, Liverpool, and Man United in a convincing way. A clash with Chelsea still remains as a big test, but hopefully, the Gunners can prove their critics wrong.

Now our focus shifts to the evening kick-off against Burnley on Saturday. Three points will be imperative on the weekend when Man U and Man City play each other.

Players ratings

Ospina: 7
With Liverpool only registering 2 shots on target, there was little for him to do, but he saved Can's effort superbly, just missing Henderson's penalty kick by an inch.

Bellerin: 8

Scored his second goal of the season and handled Sterling very well until the penalty incident, which highlighted his inexperience. He should have just stayed close with the Liverpool player as he was on the right side of him. Hopefully, he will lean from experience. Wenger described the 20-year-old as "one of the surprises of the season". His emergence is a big positive for Arsenal. Now Debuchy is fit, it is interesting to see how Wenger will rotate the squad.

Metesacker: 7

Decent game. Coped well with Liverpool's pacy and nimble forwards. Made 3 tackles, 6 interceptions and 7 clearances. 

Koscielny: 7
Made 2 tackles, 1 interception, and 3 clearances. Replaced by Gabriel in the 49th minute due to tightness in his thigh muscles. In his post-match review, Wenger revealed that the injury is a small one (which usually ends up in a 3 to 4 weeks' lay-off at Arsenal). Keep fingers crossed.

Monreal: 7

Contained Markovic and Coutinho well. Made 2 interceptions and 3 clearances. Solid defensive display.

Coquelin: 8
Helped the team immensely in the period when Liverpool had upper hands in the first half. Made 4 tackles, 6 interceptions and 1 clearance.  Unlike Arteta he doesn't give so many fouls when making his tackles.

Cazorla: 7

Heavily involved in Arsenal's first-half onslaught. Made more passes (61) than any other Arsenal player with an impressive 90.2% accuracy (although one of his misplaced passes to Coquelin nearly gifted Liverpool a goal). Unlucky not to score in the opening minutes when his shot drew a fine save from Simon Mignolet. Hit the post in the closing stage as well.

Ramsey: 7
Should have scored when he was clear through on goal after Kolo Toure's mistake. On the other hand, he provided assists for Bellerin's goal and Alexis' goal. Constantly available on the right side his crossing leaves a bit to be desired though. Replaced by Flamini in the 61st minute due to a knock to his ankle.

Özil: 8
The tide was slowly turning for him in his resurgence after his return from injury and after this game, he has finally earned all the plaudits he deserved. Especially, he has silenced those critics who claimed that he cannot deliver in big games. Scored his 5th goal of the season with a exquisite free-kick from 20 yards. Made 3 key passes. Replaced by Welbeck in the 73rd minute. He looked absolutely exhausted when he came off the pitch to a standing ovation. In the post-match interview, Wenger revealed that he was torn between Özil and Sanchez as to which to take off in the second half as both of them played two games during the international break and came to a decision to withdraw the German international as he was on the edge of being injured. 

Alexis: 9
Barclays Man of the Match. Scored his 20th goal in his impressive first season in English football. Glad to see him get on the scoresheet again after the recent drop in his form. It was obvious how desperately he wanted a goal in his reaction to the goal. Provided an assist for Giroud's stoppage-time goal, as well.

Giroud: 9
He led Arsenal's high pressing from the top. Had 5 shots, 4 of which were on target. Continued his fine goal-scoring form by scoring his 10th goal in his last 10 games. Apparently, there is a competition going on between the France striker and Alexis for the club's top goalscorer this season and he jokes about it with the Chile international in Spanish. Both scored their 14th Premier League goals this day.


Gabriel: 6
Replaced injured Koscielny in the 49th minute. Did OK, making 1 interception and 2 clearances. Helped Monreal when he was caught out of position.

Flamini: 6
Came off the bench to replace injured Ramsey in the 61st minute. Made 2 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 passes with a 50% passing completion rate. 

Welbeck: 6
Came on in the 73rd minute to replace 
Özil and looked lively. Had 3 shots, one of which was on target.


Anthony Taylor: 5
No consistency in his decisions, with some questionable decisions as well.

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