Just after three, and Twitter is alive with reaction to the teamsheets. Liverpool have Agger back and have a very strong eleven. Then Arsenal announce seven changes from the team that drew with Manchester United. The pre-match debate about whether or not to include Lukasz Fabianski, Carl Jenkinson, and Nacho Monreal is put into focus, but one name stands out. Yaya Sanogo gets his first start up front. Wow!
I don’t have to say what the mood was, and I don’t mind owning up to a little disappointment that so many changes had been made. Fast forward three hours and once more we have to take our hat off to the boss. To have won the match and kept some important legs fresh for Bayern on Wednesday was quite an achievement. It was made sweeter by the fact that those most responsible were Fabianski, outstanding in goal, and Oxlade-Chamberlain who terrified Cissokho with his pace throughout.
The opening stages suggested we were in for another uncomfortable afternoon as Liverpool once again started at a tempo we found difficult to deal with. Fabianski produced the first of a string of fine saves to deny Sturridge before the same player shot into the side-netting from an acute angle. Gradually though the Gunners got going with Sanogo proving to be an awkward handful for Agger and Skrtel, while the Ox started to enjoy going past Cissokho at will. The two combined for the opening goal as Sanogo’s fierce shot deflected off Gerard for the Ox to finish with some style.
It was a goal that enabled Arsenal to regroup and sort out the early defensive uncertainty. As a unit they started to defend better and launch counter-attacks with some confidence, an asset in short supply in recent days. Liverpool contributed much to the tension of the occasion, always threatening to get someone in behind the Gunners back four, but with less and less success as the half wore on. Suarez was denied by Fabianski as the half-time refreshments approached. The whistle was the signal for another confidence boosting ‘one-nil to the Arsenal’.
Once again Liverpool came out of the blocks quicker after the break and Fabianski was called on to deny Suarez with an outstretched foot. They were soon caught though by a classic Arsenal counter-attack. The Gunners second goal started and finished with Germanic influence. Mesut Ozil’s superb pass freed Oxlade-Chamberlain and when the rampaging winger cut the ball back it was Lukas Podolski who applied the hammer finish once more. Six goals for him this season and he has only started six matches. Should we not have seen more of him in the last week? As Toyah Wilcox once sang, it’s a mystery to me.
Liverpool turned up the pressure but chances were being traded. Fabianski denied Sturridge again at one end while at the other Jones had to be at his best to deny Ozil. Then Podolski, back in his own box, put in a strikers challenge on Suarez and from the resulting spot-kick Gerard grabbed what would prove to be just a consolation. That he didn’t get a second opportunity was something of a surprise, but when the Ox clattered into Suarez the Uruguayan’s extravagant tumble probably put enough doubt in Howard Webb’s mind about the degree of contact.
If we were fortuitous in that regard then we were less well treated when Gerard, already booked, took out the Ox as he threatened to set up another opportunity. No second yellow there, and no penalty for us when Skrtel made painful contact with Santi Cazorla and not the ball. It was not an easy game for the World Cup referee, and he achieved the ‘distinction’ of upsetting both sets of fans who took it in turns to let him know he didn’t know what he was doing.
The final big chance for the visitors went begging as Agger headed wide and Arsenal saw out the closing minutes to secure yet another ‘holic pound. I don’t mind admitting I didn’t expect to collect with the score at 2-1 and over half an hour remaining. I reckoned without Arsenal’s defensive qualities and that little bit of good fortune.
I wasn’t the big winner of the day though. That was definitely Arsene Wenger who gambled on a squad team for a vital contest against a big rival and won spectacularly ahead of another massive game in the week. His dignified response to questions about the tiresome Mourinho’s jibes added to his achievements on the day.
He will also be smiling tonight as he considers his starting line-up for Bayern. Surely the pace of the Ox and the goal of Podolski have given him the happiest of selection problems. And don’t say this within earshot of Nicklas Bendtner, but Yaya Sanogo showed he might have something to offer as an alternative to Giroud if the Frenchman is distracted in the coming days.
One of the good days, indeed.