How many times have they played together, Alisson and Virgil van Dijk? How many times have they rescued Liverpool? How many opposing attacks have they subdued? How many chances have they thwarted in their reign as one of the best defensive partnerships in the Premier League?
The answer on all counts is too many to mention. And yet at The Emirates, with their match with Arsenal poised at 1-1 and the title race heating up and Manchester City watching and hoping for Liverpool to slip, the game turned on a defensive mix-up between the goalkeeper and the skipper.
Arsenal had already let Liverpool back into the game at the end of the first half with a calamity caper of their own but when Liverpool emulated it midway through the second half, the two giants of the club colliding with each other and presenting Gabriel Martinelli with an open goal, the league leaders could not find a way back into the game.
Arsenal consolidated their lead with a late goal from Leandro Trossard, that deflected off Van Dijk and squeezed through Alisson’s legs, to seal a 3-1 win for Mikel Arteta’s team and condemn Liverpool to their first defeat in the league since they lost at Spurs on Saturday September 30th.
Liverpool, who were reduced to 10 men when Ibrahima Konate was sent off for a second yellow card late on, were the victims of a shocking error by the VAR officials that day but in this defeat against Arsenal, they were the authors of their own downfall.
Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka opened the scoring in the 14th minute at the Emirates
Saka slotted home the rebound after goalkeeper Alisson had saved Kai Havertz’s shot
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They were second best for long periods of the game against an Arsenal side which refused to let its intensity or its belief drop. Arsenal were the better team. The result will breathe new confidence into them as the title race heads towards its run-in.
And so, the title race has been blown wide open. It is as open a contest as it has been for a long time. Arsenal knew they had to win this game to rejoin the battle and they never looked like losing.
Liverpool’s lead at the top of the table is down to two points and City can close the gap as well if they beat Brentford on Monday evening. Liverpool have been so good for so long that they were due a poor performance. This was it.
Liverpool had played like a dream in their 4-1 victory over Chelsea last week and even though most sides play like a dream against Chelsea these days, the visitors went into the match with momentum and form on their side.
They were without Conor Bradley, their exciting young right back, who was mourning the death of his father. That meant a return to the starting eleven after injury for Trent Alexander-Arnold. Darwin Nunez, who hit the woodwork four times against Mauricio Pochettino’s side, was on the bench.
The game began fast and furiously. No one expected anything else. Arsenal closed Liverpool down with particular ferocity. Liverpool’s pressing was not far behind. The first time either side got a chance to breathe, Arsenal should have scored.
David Raya released Martinelli with a throw and Martinelli raced on to it, hotly pursued by Konate. The pursuit went on and on and still Konate could not catch Martinelli.
When he had almost got to the byline, Martinelli crossed into the heart of the box where Bukayo Saka had got ahead of his marker. Saka flung himself at the ball but somehow he mistimed his header and glanced it wide when it seemed easier to score.
Liverpool levelled just before half-time on Sunday through a scrappy Gabriel own goal
Gabriel turned the ball into his own net after a mix-up between David Raya and William Saliba
Gabriel Martinelli was gifted the second goal after a mix-up between Alisson and Virgil van Dijk
A minute later, Saka atoned. Martin Odegaard freed Kai Havertz with a brilliant first-time pass that sent the Germany forward in on goal. Alisson came out to meet him and Havertz fired weakly and straight at him. But when the ball came back off Alisson’s chest, it rebounded straight to Saka. Saka took a touch and then lashed the ball into the net.
Liverpool did not offer much going forward in the first half but when Alexander-Arnold whipped in a superb ball from the right touchline, Gabriel conjured a brilliant interception to prevent the ball reaching Cody Gakpo as he waited to pounce.
Arsenal were coasting towards the interval when disaster struck deep in added time. Ryan Gravenberch lofted a harmless ball into the inside right channel for Luis Diaz to chase but instead of clearing it, William Saliba tried to shepherd it back to Raya.
Raya did not come to claim it and Diaz forced his way around Saliba and hooked the ball towards the penalty spot. It hit Gabriel on the right arm and bounced slowly and apologetically over the line and into the net. After so much hard work, it was an awful way to concede an equaliser.
When the second half began, it felt as if that goal had changed everything. Liverpool were rampant now. Diaz attacked at will down the left, Alexis Mac Allister fizzed a shot just wide from 25 yards and Curtis Jones curled a shot just the wrong side of Raya’s left-hand post. It was a different Liverpool, a different game.
Gradually, Arsenal recovered their composure and their confidence. Odegaard stepped inside his marker and fired in a shot that deflected off Konate and spun wide and Gabriel should have done better than head wide when he escaped the attentions of Konate and ran on to a free kick from Odegaard.
Arsenal appealed for a penalty when Mac Allister checked the run of Havertz and both men tumbled to the turf but VAR refused to overturn referee Anthony Taylor’s decision to wave play on.
Then, midway through the half, Liverpool proved they could take Arsenal’s defensive howler from earlier and raise it. There seemed to be little danger when Virgil van Dijk ran back with Martinelli as they chased a long punt from Gabriel.
Van Dijk waited for Alisson to come to clear it but Alisson delayed. When he finally rushed out of his area and tried to hack the ball away, he succeeded only in booting Van Dijk in the thigh and missing the ball altogether.
Van Dijk and Alisson turned in horror to see Martinelli left in glorious isolation with the ball at his feet and the goal unguarded. Martinelli took his time and then rolled the ball calmly into the empty net.
Ibrahima Konate was sent off after being shown a second yellow card for a foul on Havertz
Leandro Trossard’s deflected strike sealed a crucial victory for Mikel Arteta’s side
Arteta could not hide his delight as Arsenal came out on top in showdown with title rivals
Arsenal wasted a golden opportunity to put the game out of reach seven minutes from time when Odegaard chipped into the area and found substitute Jakub Kiwior unmarked eight yards out. Kiwior twisted his body to try to get as much power into his header as possible but he could only direct it straight at Alisson.
Konate was sent off three minutes from the end for a second bookable offence when he body-checked Havertz as Havertz led an Arsenal counter-attack and as the game entered added time, Arsenal scored the third goal they so desperately craved.
Trossard made it and Trossard scored it. He ran back towards the half-way line to retrieve a loose ball and then tricked his way past Harvey Elliott and set off for goal. Van Dijk came across to close him down but Trossard’s shot deflected off the Liverpool skipper’s foot and squirmed through the legs of Alisson.
On the touchline, Arteta went wild, running up and down by the Arsenal bench, high-fiving Arsenal supporters and giving thanks to the heavens. His team had closed the gap. The title race is closer than ever.