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So, I don't know about you, but I need a cigarette after that one.
Personally, I don't remember the last time that we played a team of this caliber, in a match of this importance, and gave them an utter shoeing like the lads did today. There was a bit of a ropey period in the first half where the defense got a bit stretched, but other than that the Gunners played Liverpool off the park.
I don't know if it was the extra rest that some of our players had during the international break or if it was the knowledge that Liverpool were especially vulnerable with Martin Skrtel suspended, but either way Arsenal seized the match by the throat right from the opening whistle. The visitors barely had the ball for the first 15 minutes, as they wilted under frantic pressing from the Arsenal players. You won't see a better example of the concept of defending from the front all season long, I bet.
It seems churlish to say it now, but frankly the boys should have been 3 or 4 goals to the good before a quarter of an hour had expired. Alexis Sanchez went wide after 30 seconds, and Santi Cazorla's clever shot through Alberto Moreno's legs was somehow caught and held brilliantly by Simon Mignolet.
The Belgian had to be even better just minutes later, this time denying Aaron Ramsey from in close after an appalling giveaway by the former Gunner, Kolo Toure. It was a stellar stop, but the Welshman did underhit it and he probably should have scored.
The worry here, of course, was that Arsenal has done this many times in the past. Dominate the early stages, miss some chances, then all of a sudden the other mob go up the other end and score on their first shot. I'll be honest with you, I was bricking it that it would happen again. It did help that the visitors were missing so many key players - no Mario Balotelli, no Steven Gerrard, no Adam Lallana, a half-fit Daniel Sturridge on the bench. What remained was basically the excellent Philippe Coutinho exuding class while the Keystone Kops stumbled and bumbled around him. I'd be on the horn with my agent every minute of the day trying to get out of there, if it were me.
That sucker punch that I was worrying about almost did come to pass, though, prevented only by the fact that Lazar Markovic is horrendous at professional association football. The danger of playing an extremely high line with the resulting pressing game is that you are vulnerable to long ball counter-attacks, especially when the furthest man back is as slow as Per Mertesacker. A brilliant pass from Couthino sent Markovic in all alone. For some reason, he tried to play Sterling in at the back post instead of shooting himself. Thankfully for us, he produced a comedic, sub-Sunday League standard ball that went out of bounds miles ahead of Raheem Sterling's run.
The chance did seem to galvanize our opponents though, and mistakes started to creep into our play. Ramsey in particular had an awful opening 30 minutes, and Cazorla had one giveaway that led to a chance that Sterling will want to have back. The gaps kept appearing in our backline as the half went on, Sterling in the thick of it again as he drifted out to the left and got a cross into Jordan Henderson, who was in acres on the back post. Thankfully, the cross was woeful and the danger passed.
While their man got the better of Hector Bellerin on that occasion, it should be noted that otherwise the Spaniard had him in his pocket for the whole match. Clearly, Liverpool felt that he would be the weak link, as Sterling kept drifting off to the left wing to challenge him 1-v-1. However, he was equal to the task much more often than not. I also wonder if they intended to do that to draw Mertesacker out to help, which would allow a late-running attacking midfielder to attack that channel. But, they didn't really have the personnel for that - Coutinho is more of a creator, and Markovic and Joe Allen were always sitting too deep. Bizarre tactics from Liverpool, if we're being honest.
Bellerin also took time out of his busy schedule of corralling Sterling to open the scoring himself with an absolute peach of a goal. Ramsey came out wide to, in essence, do exactly what Liverpool were trying to do with Sterling. It worked, as Mamadou Sakho bit and came out to challenge. Bellerin made a late run, and Sakho couldn't get back (he took a hell of a knock early on and would have been subbed off if the only available option wasn't the horrendous Dejan Lovren). The fullback turned Moreno inside-out and curled a gorgeous shot past the diving Mignolet with his weaker foot. What a strike that was!
I would have been pleased to bits if we had made it to the halftime whistle up 1-0, but the Gunners had other ideas. A clumsy challenge from Sakho gave us a free kick in a dangerous area. Ozil took it, and in the end it was a mirror image of Bellerin's goal, curled just inside the same post. That said, I have no idea what Mignolet was thinking about with his wall or his positioning. The wall was so poor, Ozil may have had a chance at the opposite post if he had wanted it. Also, as a keeper if you're standing pretty much in the exact middle of where your wall is, you're doing it wrong. Not that I'm complaining, mind.
The Scousers were reeling now, clearly hoping to cling on until the interval. Instead, there was one more gorgeous goal to come to cap off one of the most exhilarating 10-minute stretches that I can remember in all of my 20 years as a Gooner. Another of the legion of bad giveaways in midfield by Liverpool was seized by Bellerin, who played it quickly up to Ramsey. It went on to Sanchez, who skipped past Toure's ineffectual challenge and fired a thunderbolt into the top of the net.
Liverpool were able to get it together somewhat after the break, but there was nowhere to go but up for them, really. Still, it was Arsenal who had the best chance early on in the second half, Mignolet parrying spectacularly well to keep a Giroud header out. Meanwhile, Emre Can finally got their first shot of the match just before the hour mark, but it was a comfortable height for David Ospina to deal with.
Mostly, the half was played out with our guys wanting to keep what they held, whereas Liverpool just couldn't get it going. Still, I suppose it wouldn't be Arsenal if there weren't at least a minor scare - this time, Bellerin rashly brought down Sturridge in the penalty area. It was a stonewall penalty kick, and Bellerin was extremely lucky not to walk, having already been on a yellow. Henderson took it, and it wasn't all that good of an effort. Ospina got a hand to it, and really, he should have kept it out.
Unlike so many other times in the past, though, the Gunners kept their poise and closed ranks once again. The visitors couldn't muster any serious chances to get the second goal that would have really made this one go into squeaky-bum time, and in the end they sealed their own doom with one of the dumber red cards I've seen in ages. The substitute Danny Welbeck had the ball over by the sideline, with his back to goal. Despite there being zero danger, Can went through the back of him with a scissor tackle. He was already on a yellow, and that was as obvious of a second one as you'll see.
There was still one order of business to attend to before the final whistle, though. Olivier Giroud had quietly had an excellent match, working hard for the cause and winning the vast majority of his aerial duels. By all rights he deserved a goal of his own, and he managed to get that done as the match went into injury time. Sanchez won the ball from a long goal kick from Ospina, and he quickly played it up to Giroud (notice how several of our goals were from the quick transitions that we don't see when the team isn't playing well). The defense stood off him, so he simply smashed a shot over Mignolet and in. Poor guy - on any other day that would have been the goal of the game at a canter...but today, it might have been in fourth place out of the four!
There's still a long(ish) way to go before the end of the season, and one would hope that the Gunners don't allow themselves to become complacent before then. However, we can talk about the FA Cup Semifinal and the chase for 2nd place later. Today, let's just bask in the aura of kicking the shit out of a major rival in absolute, triple-distilled, 100 proof style. Four brilliant goals, a hilarious red card for their lot, and also the satisfaction of killing their season deader than Dillinger.
It just doesn't get better than that.
The Modern Gooner Player Ratings:
Ospina 7, Monreal 8, Koscielny 7 (Gabriel 7), Mertesacker 7, Bellerin 9, Coquelin 8, Ramsey 7 (Flamini 7), Cazorla 8, Ozil 8 (Welbeck 7), Sanchez 8, Giroud 8
Man of the Match: I know, I know, the tackle for the penalty was daft. But, for me, this was obviously Hector Bellerin. Not only for the gorgeous finish with his off-foot to open the scoring, but he had a massive defensive responsibility and he passed with flying colors. Don't look now, but it looks like we have a hell of a player on our hands here.
Extra Bonus Schadenfreude: http://www.redandwhitekop.com/forum/index.php?PHPSESSID=pnru7hca75v53r1tc58pduccq3&topic=320629.0