Little left in the Arsenal
Arsenal 1 - 1 LiverpoolAnother brick has been removed from the fragile foundations propping up Arsenal.
Many a neutral will have some sympathy for the demise of the youthful team whose dream of fantasy football threatened to take them all the way to the ultimate prizes in this game, but reality is biting Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger where it hurts and he has no more rabbits to pull out of his hat.
Writing off a group of players still capable of sublime brilliance may be foolish, yet unless they can reproduce the sort of display that saw them oust an aging AC Milan side at the San Siro last month, next Tuesday's Champions League quarter-final second leg at Anfield may just signal the end of their noble dream.
Such is the level of respect with which he is held among the media that criticising Wenger is generally considered an act of treason for any British football writer, but there comes a point where you have to wonder whether his frugal tactics in the transfer market will cost his side dear for a second season in succession.
A little over a year ago, Arsenal lost in the Carling Cup, FA Cup and Champions League in quick succession as the tired players who had played so many games in a hectic season finally seized up.
Well those same legs have lasted around six weeks more this year, but their effort are likely count for little when the final analysis is made. Quite simply, Wenger's squad does not have the strength in depth to compete for the Premier League and Champions League through to the end and after last season's collapse, he should not have allowed his team to implode in almost identical fashion once again.
While Liverpool had plenty of quality in reserve on their bench tonight, Arsenal were forced to throw on youngsters Theo Walcott and Nicklas Bendtner when they desperately needed a second half goal, with Wenger being forced to admits his jaded side are facing up to terminal decline.
'We have the desire to fight to the end of the season, but it is looking like a battle to survive,' conceded the Arsenal boss. 'We had more than enough chances to win this game and were denied a blatant penalty for no apparent reason, but you could see that this team have given a lot in the last few weeks when we were pushing for a goal late on.
'Still, I wouldn't agree with the theory that Liverpool are favourites now. They caught us on the counter attack tonight and it was like a thunder storm rippling through our team when we conceded that goal. We struggled to respond, but we still have a great chance in the second leg at Anfield.'
Any suggestion that this game would be played out to a draw by two negative sides was banished by a first half that was surprisingly exciting considering the stakes were so high.
The Insider remembers only too well the pain endured watching a long couple of nights at Stamford Bridge watching Rafa Benitez's Liverpool go 'toe-to-toe' with Jose Mourinho's Chelsea in Champions League semi-finals of 2005 and 2007, but this was not to be a dour re-run between two sides tragically afraid of the word 'shoot'.
Van Persie appeared to waste a glorious chance when set free in the box by Mathieu Flamini after 20 minutes, but a woeful finish was papered over by a linesman's flag that was incorrectly lifted for an offside that never was. The Dutchman then went even closer as his powerful shot brought a great save out of Pepe Reina.
It was from the corner that woeful Liverpool defending allowed Emmanuel Adebayor a free header in the box that he duly dispatched past Reina. Sami Hyypia was guilty of allowing the Togo striker way too much space in the box.
Arsenal joy evaporated a matter of seconds later as Gerrard burst into the box and presented Dirk Kuyt with a chance he couldn't miss from close range and with just 25 minutes played, the Champions League quarter-final we were told by both managers would be cagey was proving to be a thriller.
The other curious fact was that while this was two English teams slugging it out, this somehow felt very different to a Premier League encounter, with Liverpool neatly managing to forget they were playing Arsenal away from home. In recent years, this has been a fixture that has brought them nothing but pain, yet Champions League football is what this team does best.
A pre-match chat with Anfield legend John Aldridge summed up the psyche of a Scouser ahead of a European game as he was brimming with confidence. 'Liverpool have a mentality in this competition that they just don't have in the Premier League,' he said. 'Put this team in the Champions League and they expect to win, which makes a massive difference.'
Gerrard comes alive in this competition and with an away goal to give them the encouragement they may have been seeking, the side who believe they belong in European Cup finals set about scoring the second goal that would have put them a long way down the road to another semi-final.
The departure of Van Persie at the interval was little surprise as the Dutchman looks woefully off the pace as he attempts to recover from his latest injury and not for the first time in the last month, Arsene Wenger's squad was showing signs of being short to compete at this level.
Make-shift right-back Kolo Toure was culpable for allowing Gerrard to set-up Liverpool's opening goal and with just Bendtner and Walcott to throw into the fray, this was a side trying to win the Champions League with the same jaded players who have been sent into battle week after week for the last eight months.
Wenger was right to suggest Arsenal should have had a penalty when Alex Hleb was hauled down in the box by Kuyt and quite why Bendtner opted to clear the ball off his own line rather than allow Fabregas' shot to restore the home side's lead is anyone's guess, but you couldn't help feeling this was an Arsenal team beating itself.
Without injured trio Tomas Rosicky, Bacary Sagna and Eduardo, Arsenal look woefully lacking in back-up and with a mountain of cash apparently sitting in Wenger's transfer kitty, you wonder why he is so reluctant to spend it.
Arsenal fans can only hope that what looks set to be another 'if only' story will force him to change his ways.
• MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - 'He showed a bit of class to open us up for the goal and he played very well throughout. When you are playing on the counter attack, Gerrard is the ideal man to have in your side.' Arsene Wenger hails the man of the match at the Emirates Stadium.
• SECONDS OUT: The Insider was greeted with a scene of near anarchy as he made his way into the press room an hour before kick-off. Respected writers Martin Samuel and Sam Wallace were embroiled in a heated exchange that caused enough concern for stewards to be called in to keep the peace. Apparently they have been sniping at each other in print for the last week and it exploded into an embarrassing public spat in front of the world's media.
• FOOD WATCH: The pre-match chilli was little short of explosive as too much spice had been added. It may have explained to a small degree the press room violence that so nearly broke out.
• BENITEZ VIEW: 'There is still everything to play for. It is nice to have an away goal, but there it will be a massive challenge for us at Anfield next Tuesday.'
• VERDICT: Arsenal are faltering late in the season for the second year in succession and it is hard to see how Wenger can rally his battered side for the final six weeks of the campaign. This tie is now Liverpool's to lose.