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By James Cunliffe at Anfield
Sunday, September 2, 2012
Premier League: Liverpool 0 Arsenal 2
Alex Song who? Step forward Abou Diaby.
It may have been Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla that opened theirs and Arsenal’s goalscoring accounts but it was the midfielder’s commanding performance that shone through to quickly cast aside fears of a gaping hole left by Barcelona’s newest recruit.
The Frenchman delivered the sort of dominant showing that used to be the preserve of Gunners great Patrick Vieira, spurring his side on with a pacey and powerful performance that opened up Liverpool at will in the first half.
And in the second, when the Merseyside men tried to address the balance he was a rock in defence, repelling impotent red waves.
And fans may dare not even whisper it, but with a third clean sheet in row there is the beginnings of a stubbornness that an Arsenal side of a not too distant vintage used to enjoy.
There may have been some element of luck to the shutout – as referee Howard Webb remained unmoved on three occasions when Liverpool arms were raised in search of a penalty – but the guidance of former hero Steve Bould as new defensive coach appears to be paying off.
With goals the only thing missing from Arsenal’s two previous outings manager Arsene Wenger saw fit to only make one alteration from the side that draw 0-0 with Stoke City last weekend with England youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain replacing Gervinho.
The home line-up saw one-time Wenger target Nuri Sahin handed his debut after moving to Anfield on a season-long loan from Real Madrid. It would be a bow to forget as he was replaced just after the hour mark.
But it all started quite promisingly for his new team when the Emirates outfit allowed Fabio Borini the space to burst from the halfway line and fizz a drive just wide from 20-yards.
The Italian was at it again following some tricky build-up play from Joe Allen, Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez, who moments earlier drew a cynical foul from Per Mertesacker to see the German’s name become the first into Mr Webb’s notebook. It was a weakness that for the remaining 84 minutes Diaby and co refuses to leave exposed despite his side being noticeably second best in the early exchanges.
A nervous beginning saw Carl Jenkinson play in Borini though luckily for the Englishman his defensive pals were present to see out the danger.
But Arsenal began to get a foothold on proceedings and glimmers of promise lay in Liverpool’s play as the Brendan Rogers-era of playing out from the back saw the hosts overdoing it and times, with Suarez a frequent offender and Diaby a glad recipient.
Within a period of ten minutes the Frenchman and midfield partner Cazorla had wrested control from the Reds.
It was a lightning quick counter that saw the Gunners assume the rule of the scoreboard as Cazorla fed in Podolski and the German international fired low past Pepe Reina to finally break his side’s Premier League duck.
The woodwork ensured that their lead remained intact. Arsenal failed to clear their lines from an innocuous high ball into the box and when the ball bounced to Sterling he gave Jenkinson the slip and crashed a shot against the post.
After then surviving a penalty shout the visitors’ other new striker, Olivier Giroud, should have doubled the lead. Again it came from a counter attack, with Diaby the driving force, and as Liverpool stood off the tall midfielder as he slipped a pass to his countryman only for the forward to fluffed his lines.
His side started where they left off in the second half but were fortunate to survive two further penalty claims. First Mertesacker got more than a handful of Suarez to send the Uruguayan tumbling to the ground as a Steven Gerrard cross whizzed through the six-yard area. Then Thomas Vermaelen handled the ball as he hit the deck but Mr Webb was unimpressed with both incidents.
Sandwiched between them, Reina clawed away a Kieran Gibbs shot but the momentum had swung Liverpool’s way.
Soon it was Vito Mannone – up until that point a virtual spectator – having to get a firm fist to the ball to tip over a Suarez shot.
Fortunately for the Gunners the hosts’ well-documented lack of striking options rarely saw them facing their own goal, so a speculative, if well-hit, long-ranger from Daniel Agger was one of their few concerns.
When substitute Stewart Downing did jink his way into the penalty area a wall of hooped shirts blocked his shot.
They looked comfortable at 1-0 and hadn’t threatened a second goal until Cazorla had two efforts in a matter of minutes, the second of which came via a simple one-two with Podolski and a helping hand from Reina, whose error-strew start to the season continued. He clawed his fellow Spaniard’s shot into his own net when he really should have beaten it to safety.
That’s exactly what Mannone did late on to twice thwart substitute Jonjo Shelvey’s stinging shots, which, either side of an off-target Suarez dink were Liverpool’s only concessions to a fightback in the final ten minutes.
Then again, on this masterful evidence, with Diaby in the side it won’t be the last time Arsenal ease to three points.
Liverpool: Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Daniel Agger, Jose Enrique, Martin Skrtel, Nuri Sahin (Jonjo Shelvey, 66), Steven Gerrard, Joe Allen, Fabio Borini (Stewart Downing 54), Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez
Unused subs: Brad Jones, Jordan Henderson, Jamie Carragher, Martin Kelly, Sebastian Coates,
Arsenal: Vito Mannone, Abou Diaby, Per Mertesacker, Thomas Vermaelen (Laurent Koscielny, 90), Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski (Andre Santos, 81), Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (Aaron Ramsey, 73), Kieran Gibbs
Unused subs: Theo Walcott, Gervinho, Francis Coquelin, Damian Martinez
Referee: Howard Webb