Liverpool left to look at what they lost
A glance at the directors' box at Anfield hints at the burden history provides for the current crop of players who are expected to emulate the eminent. A sprinkling of alumni can include some of the most decorated and celebrated footballers to represent Liverpool. If those spotted are often of a certain vintage, such as Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen, Arsenal's visit attracted an Anfield great of the more recent past. Xabi Alonso was back.
Attending a game that ended amid a funereal atmosphere, the excitable Arsenal fans apart, the midfielder made his return at a footballing cathedral that has been mourning his passing for half a season. His carefully calibrated distribution, whether over five yards or 50, has been lacking from Liverpool's game. With Alonso sat among the distinguished guests, they could have benefited from his presence on the pitch in a final half-hour when they failed to penetrate an obdurate Arsenal defence.
While his understated elegance may have obscured his importance before his departure, it didn't hide his significance to his team-mates. Now, however, it is widely acknowledged. Alonso's deputy, Lucas Leiva, is often maligned, his replacement, Alberto Aquilani, is rarely seen and was spotted hobbling for part of his inconsequential cameo. Glen Johnson, signed with some of the proceeds of his sale, played an unfortunate part in both of Arsenal's goals.
Alonso's absence ranks as a major cause of a deepening plight. While Liverpool were confined to seventh place by a 10th defeat of the season, an advertising banner suggested "Visit Spain". If only Alonso had not heeded that advice in the summer.
Andrei Arshavin, meanwhile, has been in England for rather too long for Liverpool's liking, even though his is a comparatively brief spell. Nevertheless, two trips to Anfield have been enough to establish him as Liverpool's bête noire.
After his historic four-goal haul in April, the Russian added a fifth memorable strike. With minimal backlift and clinical accuracy, he delivered an unstoppable winner. "He surprises the goalkeepers every time and the defenders as well," said Wenger. "His foot was injured; he couldn't hit the ball properly with his right foot."
That rather prompted the question of how well Arshavin would have connected with the ball if fully fit. The embarrassment, for the most expensive defender in Liverpool's history, was that it was his poor touch that allowed Arshavin the opportunity.
It completed a few minutes to forget for Johnson. Hitherto unimpressive, Arsenal were handed a route back into the game when Samir Nasri's cross made its way via Jamie Carragher to the unwitting right-back and it bounced in off him.
If that appeared a turning point, the Arsenal player attributed the comeback to an unexpected loss of temper from their manager after a mediocre first-half display. Captain Cesc Fabregas revealed: "He said that we didn't deserve to wear the Arsenal shirt." Thomas Vermaelen added: "I've never seen him like that before."
With a glint in his eye, a more relaxed Wenger said: "It is good because after 13 years I can still surprise the players. I believe you respond sometimes to what you think the team needs."
His analysis of a game of two halves was accurate: "The first half was Liverpool, the second half was Arsenal," he said. "Liverpool played a pace above us and at half time, 1-0 was a good result for us. We played with a handbrake on due to fear of not winning the big games. Once we had nothing to lose, we controlled the game and the fear was in Liverpool's camp."
Rafa Benitez was rather vaguer: "It is difficult to explain when you play so well in the first half, you were on top of them and you start the second half and everything changed." Wenger, however, had an explanation: "I believe Liverpool do not have the confidence they had last year. They played at a level that was impressive in the first half. It is difficult to play for 90 minutes at the pace they played the first half."
Indeed, they started at speed. With Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres all at Anfield again, it was almost like old times, even if one was in the stands. With the forward axis reunited for the first time since early October, they began to resemble the side who finished last season in inspired mood.
Following a pass from Torres, Gerrard should have had a penalty when felled by William Gallas - "100%," said Benitez. "These decisions can make a massive difference" - before they took the lead when Fabio Aurelio took a free-kick, Manuel Almunia punched poorly and Dirk Kuyt placed the ball between two defenders.
In form then, they were insipid after the break. Damningly, Liverpool did too little when they trailed. Benitez said: "It is not a question of quality. It is a question of confidence." And confidence deserted Liverpool some time after Xabi Alonso swapped Merseyside for Madrid.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Thomas Vermaelen - Another assured display from perhaps the signing of the summer. As both Gerrard and Torres showed signs of returning to their outstanding best, it is testament to the Belgian that Liverpool did not look like scoring in the final half-hour.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They have only won three of their last 15 games and the new start Benitez envisaged after defeat to Fiorentina is yet to begin. While the first-half performance was encouraging, that was cancelled out by a second-half torpor. But with Gerrard and Torres back together, results surely should improve.
ARSENAL VERDICT: While Wenger is looking for a striker in January to deputise for the injured Robin van Persie, the lack of a specialist hardly harmed them. Arshavin's magical goal provided reminders of his Anfield debut, when he was barely in the game but still proved capable of superlative strikes.