Arsenal hung on to gain some retribution for their mauling at the hands of Liverpool last week as they beat the Merseysiders 2-1 at the Emirates Stadium to secure an FA Cup quarterfinal meeting with Everton.
A goal in each half from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski proved enough to beat a Liverpool side that came back strongly and got back into the match through a Steven Gerrard penalty after Luis Suarez had been tripped by Podolski. The score-line could have been very different with Liverpool, and Daniel Sturridge, in particular missing several chances, while Suarez was denied a second clear penalty by referee Howard Webb.
It was none the less a much improved performance by Arsenal, both from their 5-1 defeat at Anfield and their goalless draw at Manchester United in midweek. Arsene Wenger will be particularly pleased, given that his decision to make seven changes to his lineup ahead of their meeting with Bayern Munich on Wednesday would have been severely criticized had things not gone in their favor.
Instead they have seemingly got their season back on track. And Wenger can take pleasure that several of those players that came into the team made positive impacts. In particular, Mathieu Flamini returning from suspension offered some much-needed tenacity in midfield and Oxlade-Chamberlain provided a change of pace that has been missing in Arsenal’s last two performances. Lukasz Fabianski, too, impressed as he kept several efforts at bay.
Liverpool, while beaten, and surely aggrieved at some of the refereeing decisions, will not be disheartened. And exiting the FA Cup affords Brendan Rodgers’s team the chance to focus solely on the Premier League, while their rivals each have at least one distraction.
Arsenal found themselves four goals behind inside 20 minutes last week and, having failed to learn their lessons, could easily have been two down by the fifth minute at the Emirates. Again undone by the fatal combination of a high line and a lack of pressure on the ball, twice Sturridge got in behind, first supplied by a Gerrard slide-rule pass and then by a skillful chip by Suarez. Thankfully for Arsenal, both opportunities fell on Sturridge’s right side. First, he produced a tame effort that Fabianski repelled before next time rounding the Arsenal keeper but putting his shot into the side netting.
Unlike at Anfield, though, this time, having been let off the hook, Arsenal did adjust their game. Their defense dropped back to reduce the space in behind, while Flamini and Mikel Arteta provided a more robust barrier in front of the back four. Crucially, Philippe Coutinho, such an influence last weekend, was having little impact.
Arsenal were starting to make inroads going forward, too, with the thrust of Oxlade-Chamberlain providing a valuable extra dimension to an attack that has been predictable of late. With 16 minutes on the clock, they made Liverpool pay for those early misses. After a free-kick broke down, Mesut Ozil delivered the ball back into the box and, with Martin Skrtel missing the clearance, Yaya Sanogo chested down well and hit a powerful shot that Gerrard blocked. With Liverpool’s players all drawn toward Sanogo, when the ball broke across the box, Oxlade-Chamberlain was left free to finish with the upmost composure past Brad Jones.
While the pace of Raheem Sterling was providing a threat, Liverpool were largely being held in check. Suarez, operating again from a wide right position, was doing his best to try and make something happen, but the best he could muster in the opening half was a well-struck effort from a tough angle that Fabianski saved.
Suarez’s ingenuity led to a much better chance right after the half-time interval, but again Liverpool failed to take advantage. Arsenal’s defense switched off to allow Suarez far too much space and after he dropped his shoulder to breeze past Laurent Koscielny he only had Fabianski to beat, but the Pole was again equal to the challenge.
Once more Liverpool were to be swiftly punished for their lack of ruthlessness. Whereas at Anfield it had been Liverpool breaking and ripping through Arsenal, this time Rodgers’s men got a taste of their own medicine. After winning the ball back on halfway, Ozil played a fine through ball to the pacy Oxlade-Chamberlain, who showed excellent awareness to pull the ball back to where Podolski was arriving to fire in a first-time finish low into the net.
The goal appeared to have put Arsenal in a commanding position, but just before the hour mark, Podolski undid the good work of his sixth goal of the season. There was little danger on with Suarez being well shackled just inside the box, but the German showed unfathomable clumsiness to come in and trip the Liverpool forward from behind to prompt referee Howard Webb to point to the spot. Gerrard sent Fabianski the wrong way to put his side right back into the contest.
There should have soon be an equalizer, too. Once more though, Sturridge lacked his recent deadly touch in front of goal as he was prevented from going around Fabianski by another smart piece of goalkeeping by the Arsenal stopper.
And Arsenal were again given a reprieve minutes later, this time from the officials. The fact that a penalty to Liverpool had just been awarded or perhaps Suarez’s reputation for diving are surely the only reasons why Webb failed to point to the spot when he had a clear sight of Oxlade-Chamberlain plowing into Suarez just inside the area.
Liverpool had another penalty turned away late on when Fabianski came and failed to meet a Gerrard free-kick and instead only made contact with the head of Daniel Agger after the Danish defender had send a header wide.
That was to be the last opportunity for the visitors, who faded in the closing minutes to allow Arsenal to hang on for a win that should breed confidence heading into the unenviable task of going up against the relentless European champions.