Arsenal miss big opportunity in failing to beat Liverpool in Anfield thriller
LIVERPOOL, England -- Three points from the thrilling 3-3 draw between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield:
1. Late goal denies Arsenal momentous win
The last time Arsenal visited Anfield as league leaders, they were 4-0 down after 20 minutes. Their title challenge was not over two years ago, but it signalled the beginning of the end. This time they conceded two goals in the first quarter of the game, then mounted an altogether more admirable response but still only drew. They remain in pole position, but the chance to make a statement was missed.
If the class of 2016 seem to be made of sterner stuff than the side of 2014, they were denied what threatened to be their most momentous victory of the league season. In the final minute, one Liverpool substitute, Christian Benteke, headed the ball across the penalty area for another, Joe Allen, to drill in an equaliser.
Arsenal had shown the quality to score three goals at Anfield, through Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, and the character after a shaky start. Yet, in quintessential Arsenal fashion, there were also defensive tremors, resulting in Allen's leveller.
So, on the day, little changed: Manchester City's inability to beat Everton meant that the gap between them remained three points.
Yet there was a significance for the season. Arsenal have to visit Stoke on Sunday and go to Tottenham, West Ham, Everton and both Manchester clubs in the rest of the season. Their fate will be determined on the road.
But a focus on the future should not deflect from the drama of one of the games of the season. This was a helter-skelter affair, brimming with brilliance. It was Anfield's first real glimpse of how intoxicating and exciting Jurgen Klopp's brand of football can be, yet Liverpool still took only a point.
Perhaps defensive injuries cost them. Certainly defensive shortcomings did, as Giroud's first goal showed. There is something sadly predictable about Liverpool conceding from corners.
A few weeks ago, Klopp, with a hint of exaggeration, estimated 98 percent of goals Liverpool conceded came from set-pieces. Since then, they have managed to let several in from open play -- although displaying a similar frailty against the aerial ball -- and even one direct from a corner, courtesy of Exeter's Lee Holmes on Friday. At least Simon Mignolet, unlike his deputy Adam Bogdan, could say an attacker got a touch, although Giroud made comparatively little contact with Mesut Ozil's corner, and the Belgian was still culpable of letting the ball into the net.
Giroud had the sort of game that gives succour to his admirers and detractors alike. He missed an open goal but also scored twice, turning sharply to finish from the terrific Joel Campbell's pass. It was his fourth goal in as many games against Liverpool, and the accusation that he is just a flat-track bully is ever more inaccurate.
Nor are Arsenal only a team that can prosper when the going is good. Still, they are one in search of that defining win.
2. Firmino has his best display for Liverpool
After one goal in 24 games, two in the first 20 minutes. Roberto Firmino's Liverpool career has been something of a slow burner, but the Brazilian lit up Anfield. The false nine showed he can score in the style of a striker. Pity poor Benteke, who sat on the bench as he watched an ersatz attacker find the net in some style.
Firmino showed the composure to drill in the rebound after Cech parried Emre Can's shot. If his first was a fine finish, his second was a superlative strike. Teed up by James Milner, Firmino bent his effort around Laurent Koscielny and Cech. It nestled in the top corner to the sound of an Anfield roar. He was inches from a hat trick, a shot on the turn clipping the bar.
Firmino has cut an enigmatic figure in his first half-season in England, an energetic, selfless stand-in striker away at Chelsea and Manchester City but too ineffective too often, either at home or in other positions. It may be premature, but this felt a giant step forward.
Considering he scored 22 times in his penultimate season for Hoffenheim, his overall record remains undistinguished, especially for a £29 million player, but Liverpool can at least savour the importance of those strikes.
3. Ramsey lives up to Gerrard's praise
Steven Gerrard, who has a degree of expertise in such matters, recently labelled Ramsey the best attacking midfielder in the Premier League. The former Liverpool captain went as far as to suggest he would consider playing Ozil on the wing to accommodate the Welshman in his preferred position.
With Santi Cazorla injured, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was not forced to contemplate such drastic decisions. Yet it is notable how different and dynamic Ramsey is in the middle, rather than in his early-season role as a right winger. He has a capacity to burst beyond defences. He demonstrated it twice, to terrific effect. One brought a goal. The other did, in an indirect fashion.
Ramsey levelled the score after a brilliant reverse pass from Campbell. It was the sort of ball Ozil usually provides; the immediate reaction was one of disbelief that it was the Costa Rican, swiftly as he has improved, who was so incisive.
Eleven minutes later, the Welshman almost scored a second equaliser when he lobbed Mignolet. Mamadou Sakho recovered to head off the line but, in the process, conceded the corner that Giroud converted. It is not an official assist, but he certainly contributed.
Critics charge that Ramsey, in his eagerness to bomb forward, affords his back four too little protection. Certainly, this was a game where a more pragmatic manager than Wenger, and one with more fit defensive midfielders, might have looked for a dual screen, a pair of unambitious, efficient anchormen to patrol the territory where Firmino flourished. Yet if Ramsey's defensive indiscipline was one reason this was such a barnstorming game, his attacking impetus was another.
Richard Jolly is a football writer for ESPN, The Guardian, The National, The Observer, the Straits Times and the Sunday Express.