LONDON – Arsène Wenger was eager for his team to pick up where they had left off before the international break, on a sequence of wins, but even in his most optimistic moments he wouldn’t have dared to imagine the sudden blur of startling football that created a chasm between his team and Liverpool.
Having been on the receiving end last season at Anfield, when Arsenal were obliterated in any early kickoff by a burst of attacking football, the tables were turned at the Emirates. Three stunning strikes in eight first-half minutes crushed Liverpool, and demonstrated Arsenal at their best, full of self expression and the desire to play what Wenger describes “the game we love”.
Three peaches, from Héctor Bellerín, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez, shredded Liverpool, who travelled south with a few headaches as far as their lineup was concerned, and went home with a nauseating migraine. Next season’s Champions League looks like a faded dream now.
They looked flummoxed from the off, reorganised in a way that didn’t make them look entirely comfortable. Kolo Touré came into a back four that missed Martin Skrtl terribly. Jordan Henderson was shunted wide right. Raheem Sterling began up front but endured the kind of afternoon that put that ill-considered decision to talk about his future during the week in an even more unfortunate light.
After Arsenal forced the early issues, with Simon Mignolet picking up the pieces from a Santi Cazorla fizzer and an effort Aaron Ramsey should have scored from, Liverpool did threaten briefly.
Philippe Coutinho and Sterling promised. Arsenal resisted initially, before the game opened up for the visitors. Coutinho’s delicate pass to Lazar Markovic was perfect. Markovic’s lay off to the onrushing Sterling fractionally less so.
The crowd held its breath in that millisecond as the goal gaped and the ball traversed towards the supposed man of the moment. Too strong. Sterling flashed a leg at the ball but it was gone.
And soon, so were Liverpool. A move of classic refinement gave them the lead. It started as Özil gathered the ball in the centre circle. He paused. Looked. Calculated. Then he lofted an arcing pass over to Ramsey on the right, who noticed Bellerín galloping upfield. The young Spaniard, who has deputised at right-back with such aplomb this season, had the confidence to canter goalwards and plant the ball with his left foot into the far corner of the goal. His elation was merited.
Then came Özil takeover time. The German’s influence on big games is questioned by some critics, but he demonstrated the peak of his capability here. In a promising position he was clipped by Mamadou Sakho, and it was revealing in terms of his much analysed body language that he got up, no nonsense, and grabbed the ball with intent as if to make sure the free-kick was his and nobody else’s. His set piece was struck beautifully, and sailed past Mignolet.
Mesut Özil scores Arsenal’s second against Liverpool in the Premier League at the Emirates Stadium
Mesut Özil scores Arsenal’s second goal against Liverpool in the Premier League match at the Emirates Stadium. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Arsenal’s third was all about Sánchez demonstrating that spark and high energy, full power game that drives him. His footwork at top speed was sensational, matched by the wellied thump he got on the ball for his 20th goal of the season. The Emirates Stadium is not known for erupting with the joyous noise that greeted that goal – it seemed to be a kind of confirmation of everything Wenger strives for.
With the game seemingly irretrievable, Brendan Rodgers sent on Daniel Sturridge at half-time. Liverpool competed more vigorously in a fairly open second half.
Mignolet was called into action again to palm away Olivier Giroud’s header. Then David Ospina pushed Emre Can’s shot aside. The Liverpool defender was later sent off for a second yellow card.
Liverpool did get one goal back via the penalty spot, when Bellerín tripped Sterling. Henderson stepped up and although Ospina reached it, the ball made it over the line for Liverpool to score.
Cazorla came close to restoring a three-goal margin when he struck a post at the end of a sweeping move. That honour went to Giroud, who won the ball on the halfway line, sprinted onto a beautiful return pass, and swerved into space to fire home.
It seems bizarre to say “if only” at the end of what was, in spells, the most dazzling and accomplished football Arsenal have played this season.
But playing with the power and panache to take Liverpool apart, it is reasonable for Wenger to wonder what might have been if only Arsenal had started this run of form earlier. – Guardian