Liverpool had all the possession, Arsenal all the quality up front. Robin van Persie was the difference
On Tuesday 8 April 2008, the time 9.23pm, 19-year-old Arsenal starlet Theo Walcott picked the ball up on the edge of his own area and embarked on a skittering run towards Anfield Road. Beating four men, he made it to the byline to the right of the Liverpool area, and pulled the ball across for Emmanuel Adebayor, who scored what was surely the goal to send Arsenal into the semi-finals of the Champions League. Walcott was destined to be carried off the pitch shoulder high, garlanded for a truly world-class display of skill, the hero of the hour.
Sadly, Kolo Toure was clumping around down the other end, and seconds later upended Ryan Babel in the box. Oh dear! Well, that's that, then.
Po' Theo's signature moment thus ruined, and duly forgotten, the young lad now spends most of his time dodging an inordinate number of brickbats, sent whizzing in the direction of his noggin by fans incredulous at his inability to transfer all that raw potential into world-class end product. Po' Theo! Po' Theo's a-cold! Still, there was some redemption last weekend when, after copping flak from his own support during a lame first-half showing against Tottenham Hotspur, he got it together in the second period to crown Arsenal's stunning comeback win. Onwards and upwards?
Liverpool, meanwhile, haven't beaten Arsenal at home since that game, suffering two painful draws and a defeat. But they have some hope of reversing that trend: Andriy Arshavin, who scored all four in a 4-4 draw in 2008/09, then notched the winner the following season, has buggered off. As has Roy Hodgson, whose honeymoon period as Liverpool boss lasted 89 minutes at the beginning of last season, until Pepe Reina succumbed to Mr Roy's morbid defeatism and threw the ball into his own net in disgust.
Kick off: 12.45pm.
No Steven Gerrard today, so Liverpool might have a functioning centre midfield: Reina, Kelly, Skrtel, Carragher, Jose Enrique, Spearing, Kuyt, Henderson, Adam, Downing, Suarez.
Subs: Doni, Carroll, Maxi, Coates, Shelvey, Flanagan, Bellamy.
Robin van Persie is fit for Arsenal, which has got to be good news for them: Szczesny, Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Arteta, Song, Walcott, Rosicky, Benayoun, van Persie.
Subs: Fabianski, Diaby, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jenkinson, Gervinho, Chamakh, Miquel.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Lancashire)
The weather: It is tippping down. Plenty of slick passing, please!
The minute to watch: The 90th. There have been six goals scored in the final minute - or in injury time - in the last six league meetings between these clubs.
Also in those games!!! Three own goals! Two penalties! Three red cards! Entertainment guaranteed! [Disclaimer: entertainment is not guaranteed]
Pre-match funks: "Liverpool's line-up cannot offer but one conclusion: if Arsenal don't win this, Wenger should go," writes Sasu Laaksonen, who if memory serves - and sorry if I am either misrepresenting you - is a Liverpool supporter. "The defensive spine of Carragher, (Agger-less) Skrtl, Spearing and Adam is either tedious horror or hilarious comedy. Liverpool will be out of the top-four race today. Dead certain." And now, representing Arsenal, Rob Moline: "Remember that penalty only as the Arse were fuming that an identical one was not awarded to Hleb two weeks earlier. Liverpool through on dodgy refereeing and rude luck when clearly the second-best team. Where have we heard that before?" Look at us, all having fun here.
Ladies and gentlemen, a pre-match cameo from Mr Steven Gerrard! He trots out onto the field in a well-cut grey suit, and waves the newly won League Cup apologetically for a few seconds, before trotting back down the tunnel. Well, he didn't milk that very much, did he? Not quite as rousing as the time Bill Shankly sent Gordon Milne and Gerry Byrne out with the FA Cup before the 1965 European Cup semi-final against Internazionale. Not quite. "Do you think Liverpool are better with or without Gerrard?" asks Avery Kode, before answering his own question in the arch style. "He may be a non-conformist in terms of unselfish positional play and defensive responsibilities at time, but he's surely the most technical of their Europa League-standard midfield bunch."
The teams trot out, Liverpool in their trademark red, Arsenal in their away kit of blues various. A warm handshake between Kenny Dalglish and Arsene Wenger, who haven't always hit it off on the touchline, and we're off! Arsenal set the ball rolling, kicking towards the Kop. A tempest is raging.
24 seconds: Downing powers down the left. Vermaelen is across to bundle the ball out for a corner. Nothing comes from the set piece, despite goal machine Martin Skrtel having lumbered up for it. Here's Steven Hughes on The Andrei Arshavin Conundrum: "The signs were, there for those who wanted to see them, before Arsenal even bought the man. The wonderful Euro 2008 performances against the Netherlands and Sweden were then followed by a bankrupt, non-existent display against Spain in the semi-final. He went from being the East European Messi to being the proto-Stewart Downing all within the space of three games.
3 min: A first touch for Suarez, who is booed by the Arsenal fans in front of him as he bustles down the left. He wins a corner, which is swung to the far post. Kelly meets it with his head, but sends the effort wide right. That was half a chance. Liverpool have started quite strongly here. "Let me join the rest of the world in having an opinion on Andy Carroll," begs Tom Fraine. Fair enough. "I personally think he's a slovenly lump, but this is the one game I'd have started him in. I saw him scare the bejeezus out of Arsenal at the Emirates last year (for the Magpies), and with Arsenal's dodgy central defence you'd back him to score."
4 min: Suarez bothers Vermaelen down the inside-left channel, and nearly breaks clear. Play's pulled back, the Liverpool striker being this much offside. But Arsenal are playing a dangerous game here, having looked shaky down their right side three times already.
5 min: Walcott, in the Liverpool box just to the right of goal, brings a long ball down wonderfully with one silky touch. Jose Enrique is over very quickly to cover before the Arsenal winger can get a shot away. This is a very open start. More, please!
7 min: Kuyt is found free down the inside-left channel by a clever pass from Spearing. He's a blond ringlet or two offside. Arsenal are not looking totally confident at the back, but since when has that been news?
8 min: Up the other end, Walcott is proving a persistent pain. Again he traps a long ball dead, raked down the inside-right channel, and manages to get a low and hard shot on target from a tight-ish angle, ten yards out. Reina is behind it, but only just: parried low, the ball balloons up into the sky, and is then claimed by the keeper at the second attempt.
10 min: Oh dear, Stewart Downing. Suarez goes after a ball down the middle. He's clear of the Arsenal defence, but Szczesny slides out quickly to deflect the ball from Suarez's path. The ball drops to Downing, 35 yards out, with the goal gaping. Sadly for Liverpool, their £20m man has none of Xabi Alonso's long-distance skills, and he misses the ball with a fresh-air swipe. Dear lord.
11 min: It's proper komik kutz from long distance now. This time it's Sagna who makes himself look ridiculous, cutting inside from the right and taking a shot from 25 yards. The ball flies out on the left touchline, about 25 yards from the corner flag. If there was no stand to get in the way, that shot would probably have sailed through a full 360 degrees and hit Sagna on the back of his head. Professional football, we're watching here, ladies and gentlemen.
14 min: Suarez robs Song in the centre circle, and Liverpool are two on two. It's a marvellous opportunity for Liverpool, with their players travelling at pace, and the Arsenal defenders backtracking, but Suarez, moving down the inside-right channel, rolls a pass inside behind Henderson, who has to check his run and the momentum is gone.
15 min: Downing is in on goal, bombing after a flick down the inside-right channel from Kuyt. He cocks his leg to shoot from ten yards, but out of nowhere Sagna pops over to take the ball off his toe. Brilliant defending. "Interesting to see two England wide men on the pitch," lies Gary Naylor. "While Walcott continues to tantalise with glimpses of what might be, Downing merely confirms what never was. England should think about Leighton Baines as a wide man - he would be the Moneyball option."
18 min: PENALTY! NOT THAT LIVERPOOL USUALLY BOTHER SCORING THEM! Suarez, booed mercilessly by the away fans, turns Arsenal inside out down the left with a one-two with Kuyt. Wonderful skill. He closes in on goal from a tight angle on the left, but is upended by Szczesny, sliding out feet first. Or is he? On second look, that appears a wee bit theatrical from Suarez, though there might have been contact before the triple salchow and pike. Still, either way, it's given.
19 min: And it's missed! Kuyt hits a poor effort towards the bottom left. It's parried back out by Szczesny, but into the middle of the gaping goal. Henderson is coming in from deep to hammer home, but Kuyt decides to get in the way and cushion a side-foot goalwards himself. Szczesny somehow springs up and gets across to save! Stunning goalkeeping, and more penalty-based incompetence from Liverpool who, despite last weekend's shenanigans at Wembley, have been laughably poor from 12 yards this season. It's like Michael Owen never left.
23 min: OWN GOAL! Liverpool 1-0 Arsenal. Speaing slides a peach of a pass down the right to set Henderson free. Henderson whips a low ball towards the near post. It should be easily cleared, but Koscielny slides in to flash a clearance into the bottom-right corner of the net. Dear oh dear, what a hapless shambles. All we need now are those red cards and a goal in the final minute.
25 min: Liverpool so unlucky not to make it two here. A lovely sweeping move finds Henderson in space on the right-hand edge of the area. He sidefoots a crisp low shot towards the bottom left, but the ezxczellent Szczesny palms it out. Suarez, coming in from a tight angle on the left, hits the loose ball against the left-hand post. Not for the first time this season - in fact, for the 458th time this season - Liverpool are left shaking their heads as the woodwork vibrates. "Jim Beglin on ESPN said Downing's chance landed on his 'weaker foot'," reports Colm Cosgrove, "but surely that should be 'weakest foot', seeing as both feet are useless."
28 min: Arsenal were rocking awhile there, but seem to have settled a wee bit. It's been a very open game so far. Both sets of fans are giving it plenty.
30 min: GOAL! Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal. Liverpool are caught snoozing here. Sagna is in miles of space down the right, nobody near him at all. He has all the time he needs to swing in a perfect cross onto the head of Van Persie, on the right-hand edge of the six-yard box. Van Persie heads into the right-hand side of the net, almost in slow motion, with Liverpool's defence standing dotted around him. So simple, like a training-ground drill.
33 min: Liverpool probe down the left a couple of times, first through Downing, then Kuyt, but nothing's doing. They're seeing most of the ball, but doing little with it. That goal - which came out of nothing - has taken some of the wind from their sails. "I think the 25th minute's Colm Cosgrove just means 'foot'," suggests Mac Millings.
35 min: All a bit scrappy at the moment. Spearing catches Rosicky on the shin, and is lucky to get away without a booking. "If I ever find myself up against the wall facing a firing squad, I pray that the shooters are all wearing Liverpool shirts," writes Justin Kavanagh, in an email entitled "Poor execution".
38 min: Liverpool are triangulating at speed in the middle of the park, but going nowhere fast. It looks pretty, though.
40 min: Suarez turns on the edge of the area, just to the left, and goes on a mazy run goalwards. It's a scintillating skedaddle, turning away from Song and beating Koscielny, Vermaelen, Song again, and Koscielny again. Suarez attempts to guide the ball across Szczesny into the bottom right corner, but the keeper - who is really on his game today - palms it round the post. That would arguably have been goal of the season had it gone in.
43 min: Arsenal have done nothing up front since their goal. But there's a sense that it's Liverpool who are getting frustrated. They really should be leading this match, but as is their way at Anfield this season, have little to show for all their efforts. "Even as a Liverpool fan it's comforting to see the world working fairly," writes Niall Mullen. "Liverpool fail to win so many games simply because of a lack of quality. It's not rocket surgery."
45 min: There will be two added minutes of this half.
HALF TIME: Liverpool 1-1 Arsenal. Liverpool hit the post again! Jose Enrique feeds Adam down the left. Adam fires a low ball into the six-yard box. Kuyt gets just ahead of Szczesny, and dinks the ball past the advancing keeper and towards the gaping right-hand side of the net. But the ball turns as it slowly bounces towards the goalline, and predictably hits the upright before bouncing out. A sense that Liverpool might as well give up. And that's that for the half, Liverpool stomping off down the tunnel, Arsenal wandering in for the break looking perfectly pleased with the way things have gone. And who could blame them?
HALF-TIME ENTERTAINMENT (for drunk children):
It's been tipping down, so here's a short cartoon about the rain. It's from the 1980s, and used to be shown on Channel 4 whenever they'd not sold enough advertising, which was always. It's spectacularly depressing, even by 1980s Channel 4 standards. The main character gets up and decides to take life by the scruff of the neck. With this in mind, he goes for a walk, but turns around at the first sight of rain, and goes back to bed, where he drinks a bottle of brandy dry. Children's television's not what it was.
And we're off again! Liverpool set the ball rolling again, and they're kicking towards the Kop in this half, as is their wont. "Liverpool might be getting frustrated, but their play has been much better than the last few weeks because of Carroll's absence," suggests Mike Phillips. "It's not just his individual play that hinders Liverpool, its the way he makes the team around him play - slow, long and ponderous. Suarez and kuyt look much livlier without him. Kenny et al are just trying to save face by playing him."
47 min: Kuyt, Suarez and Henderson tippy-tap some nice one-touch stuff down the right, Suarez breaking clear down the wing. He reaches the box, but there are no options for him in the middle, and his weak shot billows the side netting. "I am not sure where the 'Arsenal in crisis' bandwagon currently is," writes Liam Moseley. "However the one thing that has struck me in this match is that Arsenal are no where near as comfortable on the ball as they used to be. The difference is really telling."
48 min: The half stops almost as soon as it starts, Arteta having clashed accidentally with Henderson in the middle of the park. It looks something and nothing, but a concerned Suarez is over him and quickly shouting for the physio.
50 min: Arteta is currently being bundled onto the stretcher. I say bundled; obviously the medical men are taking no chances and treating him very gingerly. This will take another couple of minutes. Meanwhile, on Sky they're showing a super-slow-mo of the Suarez penalty incident in the first half. It does look like the Arsenal keeper caught him with his shin, though Suarez did make a meal of it with a fancy fling.
52 min: Arteta - formerly of Everton, let's not forget - is given a loud round of applause as he departs on the stretcher. That was a very strange incident; Arteta seemed to turn into Henderson at high speed, without realising the Liverpool player was there. He's replaced by Diaby, and given best wishes by a concerned Henderson as he leaves.
54 min: Diaby's first involvement: sending a low shot towards the bottom-right corner. Reina is behind it all the way. "Why was Murun Buchstansanger naked?" wonders Paul Gordon, who may as well be asking me the meaning of life. "He was looking pretty buff for a rodent/alien with no discernible legs who spent his day in bed drinking brandy. I assume his biceps gets the same work-out I do lying in bed until two on Saturday afternoon."
56 min: An injury update on Arteta: he took a whack to the jaw, and is suffering severe concussion. "For all Liverpool's bleating about hitting the woodwork so often and being so unlucky, can we just be honest for a second here?" asks Alex Till. "Hitting the woodwork is missing the target."
57 min: Van Persie is this close to Suarezing past five Liverpool challenges down the inside-right channel and breaking into the box. Wonderous run. Walcott joins in as a melee ensues. Eventually Skrtel clears. Arsenal strung quite a few passes together before Van Persie went on his solo run, their first pretty patterns of the match.
58 min: Downing nearly releases Suarez into the area down the left, but his pass is too strong. Play sweeps up the other end, and Walcott gains a yard down the inside right. He's got the opportunity of a shot from the edge of the area, and takes it, but blazes wildly into the stand.
60 min: I haven't seen him, but the Arsenal fans are singing "What a waste of money", so I can only assume Andy Carroll is warming up for Liverpool. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb there.
62 min: A ball swung into the Arsenal area from the right. Level with the far post, eight yards out, Super Striker Skrtel heads down into the six-yard box, but it's only Kelly in the middle, and the right back can't get his toe onto the ball. Szczesny gets there first, and clears out Vermaelen while he does so. Cue more treatment, though the defender will be OK by the looks of it.
64 min: Vermaelen goes in the book for sweeping Suarez's legs away from behind. No complaints.
66 min: Carragher is this close from Sandy Browning the ball into his own net, Rosicky dinking in a cross from the right, the Liverpool defender throwing himself at it before withdrawing his neck at the last second. "Do you remember this thing?" asks Rich Soden...
"Heron and crane. Many a dreadful gloomy Sunday I spent waiting for the advertised Serie A game only for a posh woman to announce (without a shade of remorse) 'And now a real treat for you as channel 4 screens the jury prize winning...'.
68 min: Downing looks to jink past (yes, really) Song down the right. He's upended. A free kick in a dangerous area. Adam scuffs possibly the worst free kick in the history of all sport into the box. It's cleared by the front man. Where have all these £10m set pieces gone?
69 min: Liverpool should be leading. Kuyt whips a majestic low ball along the corridor of uncertainty from the right. It beats all of Arsenal's defenders and the keeper, and ends up at the feet of Kelly at the far post. With the goal gaping, he manages to figure-of-eight his legs, letting the ball sail through the gap. What a miss. Liverpool are becoming brazenly profligate.
71 min: Arsenal should be leading. They carve Liverpool apart down the left. The ball's sent into the centre by Song, to the feet of Walcott, eight yards out who hits a shot goalwards. The ball takes a couple of deflections, pinballing off Skrtel and Carragher, and looks to have wrongfooted Reina, who is diving to his right as the ball goes to his left. The keeper flings a foot out, and stops brilliantly. How did that stay out?
74 min: Gervinho replaces Benayoun. "Clearly the finest piece of Russian animation was the Russian version of Itchy and Scratchy," writes Rajiv, of the majestic Worker & Parasite.
75 min: Downing races clear down the left. He's got Suarez in the middle, waiting to sidefoot home, so he passes the ball straight into Szczesny's arms. "I bet that Henderson and Downing heard the waste-of-money chant," begins Steven Hughes, "pulled their collars away from their throats with their index fingers, before sighing with relief as they saw Carroll (luke)warming up on the sideline."
76 min: It's pretty loud at Anfield. With that fourth-place finish in mind, Arsenal could do with the three points; Liverpool unquestionably need them. Expect a fiery finish.
77 min: Downing latches onto a loose ball on the edge of the Arsenal area, and screws a hapless shot miles wide right.
79 min: Walcott gets his head on a long ball, but can only flick it on to Reina. Arsenal aren't doing much up front; they'll be much the happier should this end a draw. "Is this Heron vs. Crane like Alien vs. Predator?" wonders Paul Gordon. "Whatever it is, I'm thoroughly enjoying the dulcet tones of the Russian commentator. Like a Cossack Simon Brotherton."
80 min: A final change by Arsenal. Oxlade-Chamberlain comes on for the substitute Diaby. "Isn't Wenger risking the wrath of the Belgian FA by forcing Vermaelen to play the full 90?" wonders the tinder-dry Charles Hamilton.
82 min: Jose Enrique sprays a lovely ball from the left wing to Henderson, just to the right of the Arsenal goal, ten yards out. Henderson should surely send a volley whistling goalwards, but the confidence-free midfielder attempts to find Suarez in the middle with a cushioned, sidefooted pass, and the chance is gone. Liverpool get their 13th corner of the match out of this - Arsenal, let the records show, have none - but nothing comes of it.
84 min: Adam has the ball, 35 yards from goal. Henderson is free on the right, screaming to be put clean through. Adam elects to spin round and round - 360 degrees, 720 degrees, and so on - like a dog preparing for beddy-byes, or Scott Parker. The pass is never made. Very poor from Liverpool's playmaker.
86 min: "As a Liverpool fan," begins Bryan Coleman, "I just want to express my frustration. We would be 4-1 up if any of our players could put the ball in the bloody net. I don't really know why I'm still watching - the Arsenal winner is surely on the way. Groundhog Day." To cheer you up, here's a great stat nicked from Sky: Steven Gerrard has yet to be on the winning side in a Premier League match this season.
88 min: Downing is replaced by Bellamy. Shouldn't this change have been made earlier? Anything between 87 and 89 minutes earlier?
89 min: Kuyt explodes into an uncharacteristic hot funk over an offside decision. "@£%^@$%$^!@," he tells the linesman. "@&*^%£*&^@%$!!!!" The referee gives him a stern talking to.
90 min: There will be eight added minutes of this. "Just to show commentators are clueless everywhere in the world, not just England, the Dutch commentator just called Downing 'a stylistic player with a fine technique'," writes the wonderfully named xcxcbbbn nbxnxnx. Are you related to Wojciech Szczesny?
90 min +1: A ball from the left pulled into the Arsenal area for Kuyt. The Liverpool striker falls to the ground, with Koscielny nearby. It's no penalty, though the Kop scream for one. Why bother? They'd only miss it. "After forgetting about the game and becoming engrossed in Heron and Crane, I've come to the conclusion that this wacky pair are the Soviet equivalent of Ross and Rachel," writes Paul Gordon. "I smell a sitcom."
90 min +2: WHAT A GOAL! Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal. Wow. This is some finish. Song chips a ball down the inside-left channel. Van Persie's after it. He's onside, and hammers an unstoppable shot past Reina at the keeper's near post. The keeper had no chance. That was simply brilliant.
90 min +3: Spearing is replaced by Carroll. "Steven Gerrard has yet to be on the winning side in a Premier League game this season?" splutters Rob Marriott. "Can I be one of the 1,057 pedants who saw him score the winner against Newcastle a couple of months back?" Serves me right for parrotting someone else's research.
90 min +4: Gibbs has a dig from tight on the left, but nothing's really happening for him.
90 min +5: This is Liverpool's bid for fourth place out the window, you'd have to say. Unless they score twice in the next three minutes. Which, well, you know.
90 min +6: Van Persie shakes in from the left, nipping past a couple of challenges and rolling the ball inside to Oxlade-Chamberlain, who unleashes a rising fizzer just wide of the top-right corner. Magnificent attempt.
90 min +7: Liverpool's unbeaten home record is about to come to an end. They've only won two of the last ten now. "I love the contrast between 90 min +2 and then 90 min +3," sighs Daniel French. "Uninspiring to say the least."
FULL TIME: Liverpool 1-2 Arsenal. And that's it! Robin van Persie has won the day for the visitors. Liverpool carved out most of the chances, but what's the point if you do little or nothing with them? They missed a penalty, fannied around quite a lot, and were punished by brilliance. Liverpool director of football, or whatever he is, Damien Comolli says there'll be no major signings in the summer. If that's the case, Liverpool are going nowhere, and quickly to boot. Arsenal, on the other hand, are still dreaming of next year's Champions League, and possibly finishing above Spurs, the way things are going. The final word to Philip Podolsky, albeit about iron-curtain cartoons: "The dulcet voice in the Soviet cartoon belongs to one Innokenty Smoktunovsky, basically the Soviet Laurence Olivier. This version of Hamlet is worth looking up for Shostakovitch's wonderful score alone."