Exhilarating injury time ignites then extinguishes Arsenal's title dream
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The build-up before the game was all about Arsenal’s chances of leap-frogging Manchester United for an unlikely Premier League title. A win was a must. But, as a rather convenient metaphor for the subsequent display from the hosts, it turned out to be all talk and no end product. Before the explosive finale that is.
Arsenal came out of the traps the quickest with Abou Diaby flashing a downward header just past the post after a mere three minutes from a Samir Nasri free-kick.
But true to form in this fixture, it wasn’t just one side intent on attacking as Liverpool caused the home side problems with the link-up play between the towering figure of Andy Carroll up front, the same man who scored the solitary goal in a Newcastle victory at the Emirates earlier in the season, and Luis Suarez.
Minutes later, at first glance, a seemingly innocuous penalty claim for Liverpool after Jay Spearing was felled was quickly waved away by referee Andre Marriner, but replays showed that the away side could perhaps consider themselves unlucky.
The returning Theo Walcott tested Pepe Reina after 12 minutes with a swerving 22-yard effort that the goalkeeper opted to punch rather than gather, with a moment of panic among the Liverpool defence ensuing before they regained their composure and hacked the ball clear.
Again Arsenal came forward though and came within inches of taking the lead when Laurent Koscielny’s header, from a Robin van Persie corner, crashed back off the crossbar as Reina again looked shaky.
Arsenal were definitely the side on top, and soon they had the ball in the back of the net. Cue cheers from the home fans. Unfortunately for them they were shortlived as the goalscorer, Van Persie, was correctly adjudged to be offside when collecting the ball and it was back to square one.
With Arsenal providing all their threat down the flanks, Liverpool’s chances of containing them were handed a blow when Fabio Aurelio was forced off through injury midway through the first half, to be replaced by the second rookie full-back of the game in the form of Jack Robinson.
Reina, obviously not enjoying the continuing trend of the game coming towards his goal, made another error shortly afterwards when he came out to stop Van Persie’s dart towards his goal but inexplicably missed the ball and the man and only the Dutchman’s momentum carried the ball harmlessly out for a goal kick with the goal unmanned.
If rumours of Arsenal making an approach for Reina last summer are true, on this performance the Spaniard is probably not expecting the same call this summer.
Another returning player Johan Djourou was also making an impact, after Walcott’s earlier wicked shot, by helping Arsenal control the midfield and dominate possession, so as both sides walked down the tunnel at the end of the first half only one winner was evident. Unfortunately it was the team playing all the pretty football, but nothing of note when it came to end product.
It was heart-in-mouth time again for Liverpool in the opening stages of the second half, but this time not because of an Arsenal attack. Record signing Andy Carroll collapsed inside the opposition area when he lost his footing stretching for a ball and immediately waved for help from the touchline.
Replays showed a buckling of the knee when his ankle gave way but after a couple of minutes on the sidelines, the striker re-appeared to solider on.
This was quickly followed by more injury woes for the away side when Jamie Carragher clashed heads with John Flanagan when attempting to clear an Arsenal attack, and immediately fell to the floor unconscious.
Unfortunately this time the player did not recover as quickly and Sotirios Kyrgiakos came on in replace of the Liverpool captain.
Penalty! | Spearing trips Fabregas as game at the Emirates ends in explosive fashion
After the extended pause to the action, Arsenal picked up where they left off as Walcott did well down the right flank to find space for a low driven cross towards Van Persie, only for Reina to intercept with a low save before the Dutchman could pounce.
It may have been all Arsenal, but Liverpool looked like being able to snatch a goal, as Carroll and Suarez again combined for the latter to cut inside from the right and bend a shot in, but Szczesny was never troubled and made a comfortable save.
It wasn’t long before the earlier injury caught up with Carroll though as 10 minutes later he was reluctantly substituted in place of Jonjo Shelvey. A good call though as the striker was not moving freely.
More pretty link-up play from Arsenal, but more groans from their fans as great vision from Fabregas allowed the ball to be slid into the path of Van Persie, but the striker went for a delicate dink rather than a shot and Skrtel was able to clear.
With Wenger desperately looking to keep their title challenge alive and tension building all around the ground, Nicholas Bendtner and Andrey Arshavin were introduced for the last 20 minutes, unfortunately Bendtner’s first touch was to over-hit a first touch out for a goal kick.
As the minutes ticked by, both teams knew only one goal was in this and Liverpool knew it was theirs for the taking as Flanagan and Suarez tried to combine for another hopeful effort but the pass from the former was over-hit. Cue groans from the away support.
Every single misplaced pass, bad first touch, wrong decision was being derided by the ever-increasingly frustrated Arsenal fans as Arshavin fluffed an attempted cross which did not appease them. Cue more groans.
As it turned out, there was one glit-edged chance that Arsenal made to grab a winner. With five minutes remaining, and persisting with tippy-tappy football, a glorious flick by Nasri with his heel set Van Persie scampering into the area one-on-one with Reina, only for the latter to make the vital save and keep Arsenal out.
As the fourth official announced that there would be a massive eight minutes of injury time, most fans surely would have been happy to call it a day. They will be happy they didn’t though as in the seventh minute of injury time Jay Spearing tripped Cesc Fabregas as the latter ran into the box. A blatant penalty. Van Persie duly stepped up to score and relight the title challenge fire for Arsenal. Surely?
No. As in the 100th minute of the game, Eboue bundled over Lucas inside the Arsenal area as the Brazilian was running away from the Arsenal goal to gather a deflected Suarez free-kick. Another nailed on penalty. Dirk Kuyt converted under supreme pressure. The final nail in Arsenal’s title dream? Perhaps.
As the sounds of the referee’s whistle ended the game and flew out of the stadium, it could well have been accompanied by Arsenal’s title hopes for another season.