Finnan Skrtel Carragher Arbeloa
Pennant Lucas Benayoun Riise
That’s three games against Arsenal this season resulting in three 1-1 draws. I definitely would have taken 1-1 before the match, especially after looking at the line-up (with eight changes from Wednesday’s team; only Carragher, Skrtel, and Reina remained), but after the first 45 minutes, it certainly looked like Liverpool could have produced a surprise victory.
We knew there’d be changes, but some of them were unexpected, chiefly Damien Plessis making his debut. It was basically a 4-1-4-1 with Plessis in a holding role, but at times (especially in the second half), it was the familiar 4-2-3-1, with Lucas joining Plessis in front of the defense. Meanwhile, Arsenal brought in Traore, Hoyte, Gilberto, Walcott, and Bendtner, basically matching Liverpool’s formation.
But despite more changes for Liverpool and the game being at the Emirates, Liverpool started out the stronger side for the first 30 minutes. Crouch was particularly impressive, testing Almunia with a snap shot inside three minutes, retaining possession, and bringing Benayoun, Pennant, and Riise into the attack. Crouch basically spent the first half showing Bendtner how to play as a lone striker.
It’s was Crouch’s throughball that put Riise in after 17 minutes, only to blast the shot over on his weaker right foot, while the striker started the move that ended with Liverpool’s best chance to that point, with Benayoun dragging his effort wide having run into the box in the 32nd.
But Benayoun’s miss seemed to catalyze Arsenal, with the home side getting their act together soon after and creating three good chances in the next five minutes: Cesc shooting wide and Bendtner tamely at Reina, both on the break, before Finnan’s last ditch tackle prevented Fabregas from getting on the end of Eboue's cross in the six-yard box.
But four minutes later, Crouch flicked Reina’s long goal kick to Benayoun, who returned the favor, with the lanky striker controlling with his left outside the box and firing past Almunia with his right. It was a goal out of the blue, and if any player on the field deserved it, it was certainly Crouch.
The same player had an opening five minutes after the restart, with a poor header after Finnan dug out the cross, but Arsenal increasingly took the game to Liverpool in a manner reminiscent of Wednesday’s match.
In the 52nd minute, Toure sent a free header wide from Fabregas’s corner before Bendtner punished Liverpool with an equalizer two minutes later. Again, Arsenal scored from a set play, a free kick where Pennant needlessly picked up a yellow, with Bendtner eluding Crouch for another free header, this one giving Reina no chance. Soon after, Wenger brought on Adebayor in place of Hoyte in search of the winner that would keep their slim title hopes alive.
Arsenal mounted further pressure after the equalizer, but continued to overplay at times, with Liverpool’s backline superb. Throughout the second half, Carragher, Skrtel and Finnan all had to make tackles or blocks to prevent Arsenal getting shots off, and time and time again they rose to the opportunity. Meanwhile, Plessis, on his debut (and against a side like Arsenal) was an ever-present in midfield, more than ably deputizing for Mascherano. Funny how Arsenal can dominate the midfield on Wednesday whereas Liverpool won out today.
Aresnal’s best opportunities for a breakthrough both came in the 78th minute, but Carragher cut out an excellent run by Bendtner, while Gallas and Flamini collided going for the same header seconds later. Hleb also spoiled a chance in injury time when his first touch took him away from goal. But I can’t emphasize enough how solid the backline was in preventing the home side from creating clear-cut chances.
With Gerrard (in the 66th for Pennant) and Voronin (in the 75th for Benayoun) coming on, Liverpool began to make more opportunities of their own, and Voronin arguably could have won the match for Liverpool in either the 80th or 83rd minutes. First, Crouch ably retained possession and flicked the ball to Voronin, only for him to force a wild shot with the outside of his right foot when his left was the better option. Three minutes later, Voronin made a great run to stay onside and receive the throughball, only for him to slip while shooting after taking it too far wide.
Liverpool brought Torres on for Crouch in the 81st in the hopes of releasing the Spaniard over the top, but Arsenal dominated possession to close out the match. But again, as earlier in the half and like the second half on Wednesday, Liverpool’s defense remained resilient, and what’s arguably Liverpool’s second team (yes, I realize that both Gerrard and Torres were brought on) finished off a well-earned draw.
I’ve no complaints with any of Liverpool’s starters today. All performed admirably, especially considering the circumstances. Most impressive was Damien Plessis, barely 20 years old and making his debut in the first team. The midfielder never looked out of place and didn’t put a foot wrong all match, showing quick feet, composure and game intelligence that belie his age. I can’t emphasize how impressive it was that Plessis fit seamlessly into the side in his first match, a match that was away to an Arsenal side looking to stay in the title hunt.
But Crouch merits a close second. I’ve criticized him a fair bit, and he’s only had six league starts this season, but he was influential from the opening whistle. He was the biggest (sorry, sorry, no pun intended) reason Liverpool was able to keep possession as well as they did, and the goal was absolutely master-class. Credit to Benayoun for returning the ball to Crouch under pressure, but the way he worked out a shot was eerily reminiscent of his third goal against Arsenal last year, only this time the strike came from outside the area.
And there’s the backline. Carragher and Skrtel were as impressive as in Wednesday’s match, while Finnan returned to his right back role as if he was never absent and Arbeloa did the same on the left. I was worried about an Arbeloa/Riise combination down the left flank, but I had little reason to be.
I’ll be honest. Going into this match any point earned was to be a bonus. I feared a loss that would dampen momentum and revive the paper talk of the fight for 4th place. But the players involved responded as best as could be expected. After the first half superiority and the wasted chances late in the second, it feels like this is almost two points dropped, despite it being against Arsenal and at the Emirates. That’s a victory in and of itself.
The truth is that it's a point earned, a credit to the team, and an excellent way to set up the second leg of the Champions League at Anfield in three days.
Roll on Tuesday.