London – Arsenal on Saturday received a heartfelt standing ovation from supporters who are daring to dream that the good times could be returning to north London.
After eight years without a trophy, is this the season Arsene Wenger will reappear as the alchemist of the Emirates? Certainly, Arsenal looked far superior to Liverpool, even if the Merseyside club did mount a spirited assault on Wojciech Szczesny’s goal in the closing stages.
But this victory – achieved with an opportunist goal from Santi Cazorla and a rocket from Aaron Ramsey – was never seriously in doubt. It was critical for the Gunners to deliver a performance of compelling intent ahead of a week when they will play Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League in Germany, before meeting Manchester United at Old Trafford.
“We are top of the league, we are top of the league,” chanted Arsenal supporters with a passion not heard in these parts for a long, long time.
On an evening of great significance, with Arsenal holding a two-point cushion over Liverpool at the summit of the table before the start of business, Tomas Rosicky almost profited from the first opening of the game. He was granted space on the right, but Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet pushed the ball to safety.
Three minutes later, Liverpool ought to have been ahead. Jordan Henderson dispossessed Santi Cazorla in midfield, a consequence of Liverpool’s pressing game that was designed to prevent Wenger’s team from passing the ball easily out of their own territory.
Wenger would have been alarmed at the amount of ground Henderson stole without encountering a single threat from an Arsenal player. The England midfielder had a clear sight of goal but his left-footed shot rolled lamely into the arms of goalkeeper Szczesny.
Liverpool had arrived with an energy and determination to permit Arsenal as little time as possible to settle on the ball. But the best laid plans can be detonated by the brilliance of a swift counter-attack of the kind Arsenal have hallmarked.
Mikel Arteta’s pass down the right might have been measured with a slide rule as it left Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho second favourite to reach the ball as Bacary Sagna sped ahead of him.
Sagna’s first-time cross was whipped into the Liverpool area at pace and Cazorla appeared with an exquisitely timed run to meet the ball with a header from 12 yards, which struck the righthand post. Before Mignolet could spring to his feet, Cazorla crisply struck the rebound into the roof of the net.
It was a sweet, sweet moment to salve the wounds, at least momentarily, opened by defeats suffered in their two previous home matches, against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League and Chelsea in the Capital One Cup. The mood audibly lifted as the crowd recognised the value of such a lead.
But this Liverpool side possess an arsenal of their own in the shape of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. In the five games they had started together before this match, they had claimed an impressive 10 goals between them. No defence can rest for a nano-second with them around, as Arsenal discovered in the 25th minute.
When Sturridge won a backheader on the halfway line, his touch created a break for Suarez. Sagna invited a booking for bringing down the Uruguayan.
In the 31st minute, Sturridge worked a path from the right touchline, but his left-footed shot did not reflect his usual power. Before then, Liverpool’s Aly Cissokho received a yellow card for a foul on Sagna, but, for the most part, this was an evening that caused referee Martin Atkinson little to be stressed about.
Why, Suarez even declined the invitation to go down in the box when he was at least within touching distance of Arteta’s outstretched leg.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers reacted to his team’s position by withdrawing Cissokho at the interval to inject some artistry from Philippe Coutinho.
In the 55th minute, Arsenal old boy Kolo Toure played a careless backpass that gave Olivier Giroud an unexpected chance to continue his rich vein of form. But the Frenchman’s normally dependable radar malfunctioned and his attempt at a delicate chip over Mignolet’s head saw the ball hit the side-netting.
It did not prove to be something for Arsenal to fret long over. Ramsey soon claimed the ball outside the Liverpool penalty area with Toure in close attendance.
But in this season of seasons for the Welshman, being close to Ramsey is not enough to deny him from finding the room to shoot with purpose.
As Ramsey’s right-footed shot ripped into the net, Arsenal’s crowd rose to salute his sixth goal in this Premier League campaign. At that moment, Liverpool’s prospects of manufacturing a recovery looked forlorn.
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