By Wayne Veysey at Anfield
In a scarcely believable opening 20 minutes at a breathless Anfield, anything suddenly seemed possible for Liverpool.
With Arsenal’s advantage over the Merseysiders effectively eroded to five points with more than three-quarters of this top-of-the-table clash still remaining, social media and terrace chatter turned to whether Brendan Rodgers’ team had reignited their title challenge.
Given Liverpool’s total destruction of a side who began the weekend at the Premier League summit, talk of a four-horse race does not seem fanciful.
Taking Jose Mourinho’s equine metaphors further, Arsenal looked the part only in the parade ring. They were barely out of the starting stalls before they should have been pulled up.
What a statement of intent from Liverpool. What a chastening afternoon for Arsenal, who were so overwhelmed by the majesty of the home side’s attacking play that it felt they were lucky to escape Anfield with a scoreline that was not even more humiliating.
“We played in slow motion,” lamented Arsene Wenger. The pace and intensity of a rampant Liverpool, exemplified by an exhilarating display from Raheem Sterling, simply blew Arsenal away.
Per Mertesacker and company will have nightmares about how they were put to the sword during this lunchtime feast of attacking play.
What an exciting team Rodgers is assembling. With old dog Steven Gerrard demonstrating that he is capable of mastering his new quarter-back role, Jordan Henderson adding a subtle dimension to his all-action style and a front four of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge, Philip Coutinho and Sterling as quick in the head as they are across the turf, the new-look Liverpool are producing the most majestic football seen in these parts for two decades.
Lethal on the counterattack and comfortable hoarding possession, they are capable of creating chances almost at will. It is no coincidence that Champions League rivals Tottenham, Everton and now Arsenal have been torn apart by Liverpool in the last two months, not to mention lesser lights Norwich City, West Ham and Stoke City.
A defensive vulnerability and the absence of an A-list midfield anchorman, combined with a squad lacking strength in depth, makes Rodgers’ side the outsiders in the title race.
Yet, even if they fall short this season, the potential is clear for all to see. Should Liverpool hold on to Luis Suarez beyond August, and that is still a big ‘if’, they will be one of the teams to watch in the next few years.
As Arsenal reflect on another marquee-match failure, there is little evidence to suggest that the Londoners have the class and durability to emerge as champions.
The difficulty for Wenger is that the hurdles come thick and fast over the next two months. There is little time for the players to lick their wounds, or for the coaching staff to iron out the alarming frailties against top-class opposition.
In the next 10 days, Arsenal host Manchester United, Liverpool and Bayern Munich at Emirates Stadium. In March, they travel to Munich, Tottenham and Chelsea before hosting Manchester City.
It would be quite some feat if the Gunners are still in the title race, not to mention the FA Cup and the Champions League, by Easter.
Wenger has admitted his team need to find answers. After failing to find those in the January window, the Frenchman’s in-tray is overflowing.
In addition to a brutal fixture schedule and the by-now-traditional crippling injury list that affects Arsenal at this time of year, there is also a worrying absence of pace in the front line.
The injuries to Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey have robbed Wenger of two direct runners best equipped to race in behind defences. The knock-on effect is that this negates the threat of the spatially aware Mesut Ozil, who is reduced to knocking square balls to his fellow midfielders or buying time by laying it off to the one-dimensional Olivier Giroud. If they can’t get their best players on the pitch, what chance do Arsenal have?
Arsenal are stumbling, while capital rivals Chelsea soar. At the end of a day in which the top four all featured, Jose Mourinho’s men are increasingly looking the team to beat.
With eight wins and two draws from their last 10 league matches, conceding just three times, they are generating a momentum that is beginning to look irresistible.
Unlike Arsenal and even Manchester City, Chelsea’s main title rival, the west Londoners’ squad is in excellent shape. Their main players are fit and firing, they bought well in January and they have a resoluteness and resourcefulness that is the mark of all Mourinho sides.
In the final reckoning, it is only the lack of a stellar centre-forward that could hamper Chelsea’s challenge this season.
How Arsenal could do with a Suarez, Sturridge or even a Samuel Eto’o. Their lack of activity in past transfer windows is starting to look like negligence.