Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal

Well, shit. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

Xabi Alonso - 41'
Patrick Vieira - 57'
Neil Mellor - 90'

The Champions: Jens Lehmann -- Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Kolo Abib Toure, Lauren Bisane-Etane -- Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Francesc Fabregas Soler, Fredrik Ljungberg -- Thierry Henry, Jose Antonio Reyes (Robin van Persie 67). Subs not used: Manuel Almunia (GK), Justin Hoyte, Philippe Senderos, Mathieu Flamini.

The Scousers: Chris Kirkland -- John Arne Riise, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Steve Finnan -- Harry Kewell, Xabi Alonso, Dietmar Hamann, Steven Gerrard -- Neil Mellor, Florent Sinama-Pongolle (Antonio Nunez 69). Subs not used: Jerzy Dudek (GK), Igor Biscan, Salif Alassane Diao, Stephen Warnock.

Well, we lost, and in devastating fashion. It's never fun when someone drives a stake into your heart just as the last seconds are ticking away, but I honestly can't complain with this one. Liverpool deserved to win, and it would have been horrendously unfair for them if they hadn't...the nature of how they beat us makes it worse, but the point remains that they came in with a gameplan, executed it beautifully, and were flat-out the better team on the day. All congratulations must go to Rafa Benitez and his men, as you can't even say the Arsenal played poorly. This was actually one of our better efforts in a while, and we still got outplayed. It happens, especially when on the road against quality opposition.

Liverpool and Arsenal both had similar defensive game plans, oddly enough. Of course, it should be familiar to us, as it isn't too different from what we've always did under Wenger...stay aggressive and press the ball all over the park, and try and force turnovers that way. Liverpool opted for the same strategy, and it made for an interesting first half. Say what you will about the Arsenal defense, but there could be no excuses now with Sol Campbell back in the lineup. And, of course, Vieira was his usual combative ball-winning self. However, Liverpool are a match for us in this respect...Kirkland is about as good as Lehmann in goal, their back four is just as splendid as our (first-choice) one is, and Steven Gerrard (whether you like him or not) is a fantastic player who is every inch as good as Vieira when he's on form. We have met the enemy, and they look just like us. Because of this, there wasn't that many clear-cut chances in the entire match...the whole thing was played at an extremely high level defensively. Gerrard, who was easily the Man of the Match, actually was supposed to be on the right wing today. But, he was everywhere, thwarting one Arsenal attack after another. Liverpool fans have to be delighted with this, especially as this is his first full game back after that lengthy injury.

Actually, that was the difference. Other teams have tried the full-field press on us as well (Charlton comes right to mind), but most sides can only keep it up for so long. Conditioning is a factor, as is the general skill of the defenders. Normally, all it takes is a Pires dummy or a Henry flick, and all of a sudden there's beaten defenders everywhere. But, the Scousers always had a boot in to break it up, always had someone in support if they needed it, rarely missed a marking assignment...they were just brilliant in general. Likewise, Liverpool made some strong attacks, but we generally did a good job of fending them off. That said, I have to be honest and say that referee Alan Wiley erred greatly early in the match when he turned down Gerrard's claim for a penalty. It was a tough call in real time (you have to give the ref that benefit of the doubt), but the replays show that Kolo clearly kicked him in the knee, which very obviously took away a scoring chance. A red would have been harsh (have I ever mentioned that I fucking loathe the "professional foul" rule? Only like 20 times? Fine, here's 21: I fucking loathe the professional foul rule), but the penalty and a yellow would have been perfectly fair. Actually, speaking of Kolo, he had a bit of a middling effort for us tonight. He made mistakes, but fair play to him, he recovered beautifully on most of them. More on that later. Despite our play not being terrible, the Arsenal offensive machine just couldn't get going in the first half. The thing is, when you have a complicated and sophisticated machine, it's crucial that evey part is working well...and working in unison. So, if the first touch gear or the the final pass cog are sticking, the whole thing shuts down. It doesn't help when there's a bunch of Scouse punks jamming things up, too!

As the half wore on, it seemed to me that if anyone was going to score, it was going to be Liverpool. They threatened with a nice header from Kewell, off a wonderful cross from Finnan. Lehmann (who was absolutely brilliant today) did real well to save it. I say Lehmann was brilliant not only for the saves he made, but because he made some essential interventions (with feet, with hands, and with his head once) to help out the Arsenal defense when the Scousers were swarming forward. He has been a target in the past (and rightfully so in some cases) for being somewhat dodgy in that aspect of his game, but his awareness and distribution were top-notch today. It took until the 40th minute, but then the inevitable happened...an absolutely sublime (dare I say Arsenal-esque?) buildup from Liverpool culminated in a nice slide-rule pass from Gerrard to Alonso, who was just outside the area. The resulting thunderbolt from the Spanish midfielder was unstoppable by any human walking the earth...it was always going into that top corner. So, heading into the half, the home side were up by one...and you had to think that they were good for it.

But, several factors come into play here. Arsenal have been a better second-half side all year...Arsene always seems to get them going after the interval. And, as mentioned before, it's hard for a pressing team to maintain a perfect defensive record, even within a single game. Because the defender is committing on almost every play, a quick series of passes (especially a quick give-and-go) can certainly beat not only the man marking you, but also the man coming in to help out. That opens up space, so that the third man in will have time and space to either shoot, or get it into a position where someone can. Now, if there's anyone in the league who knows a thing or two about unlocking defenses, it is the Arsenal. That in mind, even the most hardcore Scouse supporter couldn't have been that suprised when Arsenal got the equalizer. While they hadn't seriously threatened until the goal, they came out much more brightly in the second half, and anyone who follows this team with any regularity could tell that the passes were being strung together just that little bit better. Sure enough, a great team move ended with Pires just outside the area. He scythed a pass through the two defenders as carefully and effectively as a neurosurgeon, leaving Vieira alone with Kirkland. PV4 isn't normally a scorer, as it's hard for the defensive holding midfielder to efficiently get into scoring areas without shirking his defensive responsbilities. However, when he's one-on-one with a goalkeeper, he almost never misses, and that's what happened here. Instead of trying to put a hole in the net to match Thomas Hitzlsperger, he simply lofted the ball over Kirkland (who was diving to his near post, as he should) and into the far side netting. Full marks to Kirkland, though...even going the wrong way, it looked like he got a hand on it.

After the equalizer, the game settled into a more-equal version of the first. Both sides made a change as the 70th minute neared -- van Persie came on for the disappointing-yet-again Reyes, while Nunez made his Scouser debut in place of the injured Sinama-Pongolle (if this keeps up, they're going to have a ball boy on the bench by Boxing Day). Neither man made much of an impression, but it couldn't have hurt either side to have fresh legs on. Anyway, Vieira got himself stupidly booked, and now he's going to miss the Chelsea match. Fucking wonderful...not like that one has any importance or anything, eh Patrick? Even worse, he probably should have been sent off for a fucking shameful dive. We all hate it when that bastard van Nistelrooy does it, and we hated it when that vile prick Kewell did it for them. news flash, Paddy: You're big and tall and strong, and referees know this. When a stiff breeze is enough to make you fall over, they're going to catch on pretty quick...the only way this would work with any regularity was if your shirt said "Vodafone" on it, and Mike Riley was the referee.

The momentum turned again, though, and Arsenal again were finding it difficult to deal with Liverpool's pressing. Gerrard got a fortuitous bounce at the edge of the area, but his scything shot across the face of goal was parried wonderfully by Lehmann...he got a strong enough hand on it to clear the danger entirely. Henry almost scored a wonder goal himself, though, as his ridiculously audacious shot from 40 yards out or so was only a little bit wide. If it was on target, it was in...Kirkland was a very, very beaten man. Henry also had the ball in the area a few minutes later, but the ball wouldn't sit for him, and that allowed three defenders to close in on him. That ended up being very important in the final reckoning, of course.

Mellor was kind of anonymous for most of the game, at least in terms of actual chances. However, he did plenty of running as the lone front man at times (Sinama-Pongolle and then later Nunez would cover the right flank when Gerrard was off doing his free-role thing), and he created some pressure on the Arsenal defenders with his part of the pressing game. However, what a wonderful strike he came up with to get all three points for the bastards...a high lofted ball caused confusion between Kolo and Sol. In volleyball (especially the beach variety), they call it the "husband-and-wife" play...each thinks the other is going to get it. As soon as I saw the two defenders in disarray, I audibly whispered "oh, shit." Sure enough, Mellor did really well to get between them. Now, keep in mind that he was on the run, and he had the barest of seconds to work with in between two top-class defenders who are both strong and quick. To do that and then half-volley a shot with pace and accuracy into the top corner...all you can do his tip your hat to him. It was a fabulous goal, and again, no less than Liverpool deserved.

So, I close with this. Bill Simmons of espn.com's Page 2 has his Ewing Theory (team gets better when supposed indispensible star player goes down with injury or gets traded), I have my First Law of Football: Just because you aren't familiar with a player or a team doesn't mean that they aren't class, and it certainly doesn't mean that they can't beat you.


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