Sunday, 3 November 2013

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0: match report -

The talent of Arsenal's individuals was never in doubt, but for so long they seemed to be afflicted by a certain melancholy, the sort that overcomes a squad that has lost its best players and fallen short once too often. Now, they shimmer with the certainty of a side utterly comfortable in each other's company.

There were tantalising signs, too, of a developing rapport between Mesut Özil and Santi Cazorla. The comparison with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta at Barcelona may be a little trite, but there were echoes of that pair in the way Özil and Cazorla measured their runs against each other, each attacking subtly different spaces.

With a little more work, they have the potential to become Europe's most feared midfield pair, with Ramsey the grease to their cogs. Then there was Ramsey's goal, a spectacular dipping volley from 25 yards.

The Arsenal of a couple of years ago looked almost petrified to shoot from distance.

If this was something close to affirmation for Arsenal, then it was a strong pill of perspective for Liverpool. The more fanciful fringes of their support hinted at a possible title tilt after their club's strong start. This game confirmed that a Champions League place should be the limit of their ambitions this season.

"I think we've got a long, long way to go before we're looking to compete consistently," said manager Brendan Rodgers. "We won last week with a terrific performance, 4-1 against West Brom. Expectancy was high. Now it'll be a bit more realistic. But I've always said our ambition is to be up there in the top four. We would need some luck along the way."

No such luck here. Liverpool were denied the services of Glen Johnson just before kick-off, who was taken to hospital with an infection and later released. In his absence Liverpool contested the opening skirmishes well, and could have led through Jordan Henderson.

Allowed to run from the halfway line almost unchallenged, he scuffed his shot badly. Later, Henderson had the ball in the net after a quickly-taken free-kick by Luis Suárez, only for referee Martin Atkinson to bring play back to book Bacary Sagna.

"I thought it was a poor decision," Rodgers grumbled. "You have to let the game flow." But by then Liverpool's weakness against well-delivered crosses, a failing that cost them against Southampton and Newcastle, had already resurfaced.

Sagna's ball bounced kindly for Cazorla, whose header pinged against the outside of the post. Martin Skrtel was caught on his heels, and Cazorla pounced quickest on the rebound. First-time, and off-balance, he hammered the ball into the roof of the net. Goalkeeper Simon Mignolet, still prostrate after his dive, was left flapping helplessly at the ball, like a man sitting on his sofa trying to swat a fly.

The second half brought instant changes. The wretched Aly Cissokho was withdrawn at half-time, Philippe Coutinho replacing him on the left in a largely orthodox 4-4-2 formation. Yes, Brendan Rodgers going 4-4-2: the equivalent of Radiohead putting away their fancy computers and releasing an album of sing-along pub bangers.

If it was an unfamiliar sight, there was also a certain logic in opening up the game. Unfortunately, it opened in Arsenal's favour.

With spaces now opening up all over the pitch, Arsenal could now play at will and break at pace. The warning signs were there for Liverpool even before Ramsey doubled Arsenal's lead on the hour.

Ramsey was allowed far too much space by Kolo Toure as he received Özil's pass just outside the Liverpool area. After letting the ball bounce, he swung a right foot through it, giving the ball just enough dip and swerve to loop the ball out of the reach of Mignolet's dramatic dive.

Liverpool's flourishes were all too brief, the result never seriously in doubt despite the odd threatening burst. Suárez was outstanding in a lost cause, harrying and scurrying and chasing back and ignoring the chants of "you should have signed for a big club" from the Arsenal fans.

He even hit the base of the post late on with an opportunistic shot from a tight angle. But these were mere sparkles, in a game where Arsenal provided all the fireworks.

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