Arsenal’s emphatic late first-half salvo secured a convincing 4-1 victory over Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium, to move up into second place in the Premier League and deal a potentially fatal blow to Liverpool’s Champions League chances. After Liverpool had hauled themselves back into the game having been overwhelmed early on, Arsenal struck three times in the closing eight minutes of the opening half to take a decisive grip on the game.
First came a beautifully curled finish by right-back Héctor Bellerín, then quickly an exquisitely curled free-kick by Mesut Özil, all capped off by a rasping strike by Alexis Sánchez into the roof of the net. Three goals of the highest quality, for sure, but also three goals that involved significant errors from Liverpool.
And this was a performance riddled with miscues for the visitors. The second-half was a non-event, although enlivened by Jordan Henderson's penalty, a second yellow card for Emre Can and a late flourish from Olivier Giroud to add further sheen to the score line. For Brendan Rodgers, though, there will little but be crushing disappointment.
After defeat to Manchester United before the international break, this was a match that Liverpool realistically had to win, in order to close the six-point gap to Arsenal and potentially the five-point advantage held over them by United in the final top-four berth. But after a run of 10 wins and three draws, Liverpool have failed to perform in their two biggest matches of the season. With just seven matches remaining, a win for United at home to Aston Villa later on Saturday will surely leave the divide too large to breach.
Contrastingly, for Arsenal, the result will surely mean an 18th successive season in the Champions League. While chasing down Chelsea surely remains a distant dream, despite the fact Arsene Wenger’s men host the leaders in three weeks’ time, the opportunity to seize second place is well and truly there. The priority, though, will remain shoring up a place in the top three and avoiding a perilous qualifier to book their spot in the all-important Champions League group phase. Now on a run of seven straight victories in all competitions, confidence at the Emirates should be sky high.
It certainly looked that way in the early going on Saturday. Arsenal began with determined intensity, in complete contrast to their labored and hesitant opponents. Indeed, the opening five minutes bore more than a passing resemblance to Liverpool’s 5-1 in the reverse fixture last season. Only this time, it was Liverpool repeatedly coughing up possession under pressure. Joe Allen, Lucas Leiva and Kolo Toure were all exposed, but Sanchez, Cazorla and then Aaron Ramsey failed to capitalize, with Simon Mignolet keeping his side afloat.
The midfield zone that had been such a key part of their revival this season looked lackluster for the second match running, with the returning Lucas off the pace. Still, Liverpool did find a way into the match as Arsenal’s early pace dropped. And they should have taken a lead that might have changed the whole complexion of the contest. Philippe Coutinho found space behind an Arsenal midfield that can still be too open, and picked out a fine through ball for Lazar Markovic. The Serbian, though, never looked confident, and fearfully ceded the responsibility for the shot to Raheem Sterling, only for his anxiety to lead him to over-hit the pass.
How Liverpool were soon to regret that missed opportunity. The first man at fault was Alberto Moreno, who allowed Bellerin to cut inside in the box far too easily, permitting the Arsenal right-back’s to curl a fine left-footed shot into the far corner of the net. Three minutes later it was 2-0. Again the strike was impressive, this time the excellent Ozil delivering with his left-foot from a central free-kick. But the ball traveled to the side that Mignolet was charged with covering and there was no excuse for Liverpool’s goalkeeper not getting there. And the contest was effectively ended before the interval. Lucas gave the ball away once more, Ramsey found Sanchez, who went easily past the hapless Kolo Toure, before firing past Mignolet from the edge of the box.
Arsenal were largely to happy to hold what they had in the second half, as evidenced by the arrival of Mathieu Flamini alongside Francis Coquelin in midfield. There will be some frustration from Wenger then that his side were unable to shut Liverpool out. Bellerin’s tackle on Sterling in the box was poor and the young defender was perhaps fortunate not to see a second yellow card. But, despite Henderson finding the corner of the net from the spot and trying to rouse his teammates on the way back to the kickoff, the goal was never going to be anything more than a consolation.
That point was reaffirmed when Can went into a poor tackle from behind on substitute Danny Welbeck to earn a second caution and a red card with six minutes remaining. That left just enough time for Giroud to continue his fine form with a seventh goal in his last seven matches and again leave Liverpool’s defense looking inept.