By Ian Grant
Although Gerard Houllier said Francis Jeffers conned the referee for the Arsenal penalty, the ex-Evertonian represents a far great goal threat than the lumbering Kanu.
If Arsenal don’t jettison Jeffers through the transfer window- this next half season could be set up for him.
Arsenal were nearly mugged by Liverpool’s tactics – blanket defence in the first half – and more or less all out attack in the second. And Arsenal didn’t help their own cause by some sloppy defending which raised Liverpool’s game in progressive steps during the second half.
The first half was one sided with Arsenal’s slick passing game up against Liverpool’s dogged defending.
Lauren and Wiltord’s neat combination play on the right won Arsenal a succession of corners. From one, Campbell had the ball in net, but was judged to have fouled. Another powerful Sol header from a corner was saved by the impressive Kirkland.
Hypia and Henchoz were playing very deep, and Liverpool’s solid 4-4-2 largely restricted Arsenal, whose attacks foundered in the centre.
Gilberto had a couple of shots wide – his form seems to have dipped. And Henry powered a header well wide.
It called for Bergkamp and Ljungberg, perhaps to unpick the steely defence. But the Dutchman is not 100% fit and was on the bench, and the Swede has a bad chest infection
Kanu wasn’t a penetrative force. When the ball came to him, it usually went backwards, if he didn’t first lose it.
Liverpool came out of the traps fast in the second with Diouf and Baros prominent.
Although Owen went off with tight hamstrings, the ball over the top from Gerrard and Murphy always represented a threat.
And Arsenal’s sloppiness didn’t help – witness a quick free kick from Murphy to Cheyrou which saw the defence asleep, but let off with a wild shot. Or David Seaman’s fumbling of a ball back from Keown from which Baros nearly scored.
However Arsenal had the better first chance of the half.Wiltord rounded Carragher in the area and would have won a penalty had he gone down. But he stayed on his feet and elected to shoot near-post, not far and it hit the side netting.
Soon after, a Liverpool centre saw Diouf three yards out with the whole goal at his mercy – but a powder-puff connection saw Ashley Cole – well positioned again on the line to kick it to safety.
However mid-way through the half, a telling ball from Gerrard over Campbell’s head, saw Baros clear. He checked ran to the left of Campbell, sensed the tackle coming in, took a touch, and went down. A clear-cut professionally derived penalty. No argument.
Murphy grabbed the ball out of Diouf’s hands. And despite several distractions remained cool, saw Seaman diving left, and raised it higher into the top corner.
So it was going to script. Liverpool were in a similar position last season when a Murphy goal beat Man U. Liverpool are the most successful of all Premiership teams at Highbury. Arsenal had won only one of the last nine league encounters with Liverpool. And when Kanu has started a game Arsenal have lost their last four.
However, with Bergkamp and Jeffers on for Kanu and Wiltord, the Liverpool defence had a different kind of problem to deal with.
And soon after a typical probing pass from Bergkamp, saw Jeffers turn Riise brilliantly in the area. The Norwegian, did make contact with Jeffers with his hand, which hampered him. But it didn’t appear like a pull. However Jeffers tumbled and a spot kick awarded.
Henry stepped up and had no trouble beating Kirkland. Arsenal were let off the hook.
In the final ten minutes it could have gone either way. Liverpool were threatening, with Baros the spearhead. Lauren did well to disposess him in the area when bearing down on goal.
However, the best chance fell to Arsenal in injury time.
Again Bergkamp provided the inspiration, dinking a through ball for Cole who fired it across the area. Gilberto had a large part of the goal at his mercy but fired it near-post and wide.
Will Arsenal rue that miss come May?
It would probably have knocked out one of their challengers and given them momentum. As it is Liverpool can build on this result, and claim their slump is behind them.
Arsenal’s Jekyll and Hyde season continues – encapsulated in this match.
They could have won it – but equally they could have lost it.
At least it looks like entertainment all the way to May.