Arsenal back in the hunt
Kevin Affleck Arsenal, written off as title contenders following a chastening defeat by Chelsea a fortnight ago, put themselves back in the running with a hugely impressive win over Liverpool last night. An own goal from Glen Johnson and a brilliant finish from Andrey Arshavin, back at the scene of his four-goal haul last season, cancelled out Dirk Kuyt's first-half strike to seal a win that leaves the Gunners in third, three points off second-place Manchester United with a game in hand.
Liverpool remain way off the pace in seventh position and the defeat was their second by the same scoreline at Anfield in the space of five days. The increasingly frustrated Kop could at least console themselves with the return of Fernando Torres, who made his first start since November 4. The quicksilver forward, however, missed a golden chance to mark his return in style in the 12th minute. The Spain striker collected Dirk Kuyt's ball out of defence on the halfway line, flicked it on to Steven Gerrard and set off towards goal.
When the Liverpool captain pulled a pass back to the edge of the penalty area Torres had only Manuel Almunia to beat but, perhaps due to his lack of match fitness, side-footed tamely at his compatriot. Seconds later the home side should have had a penalty when Torres returned the favour for Gerrard, who knocked the ball past William Gallas but was caught by the defender. Despite there being obvious contact - confirmed by television replays - referee Howard Webb waved away appeals.
Gallas was the centre of another penalty appeal in the 34th minute but his tangle with Torres was just outside the box and Webb was not interested any way. A minute later Denilson looped a shot into Jose Reina's arms while Samir Nasri ran from deep, but drilled a low 30-yard shot wide as Arsenal began to sense they had weathered the early storm. But four minutes before half-time Liverpool were handed the lead by Almunia.
The Spanish goalkeeper failed to punch clear Fabio Aurelio's free-kick and Kuyt fired home from 10 yards. Just before the break Aurelio was booked for halting Theo Walcott's right-wing run with an arm across the youngster's throat. Arsenal started the second half brighter but Cesc Fabregas's weak shot from a short corner failed to cause Reina any concern. Five minutes after the restart Liverpool gifted Arsenal the softest of equalisers.
Fabregas released Nasri on the right and when Johnson, with Walcott at his back, tried to intercept a cross which had taken a slight deflection off Jamie Carragher he succeeded only in turning it past Reina. Torres showed his turn of pace to outstrip Bacary Sagna in the penalty area but he left himself with too narrow an angle for the cutback and Almunia collected with Kuyt lurking in the centre. Javier Mascherano was booked for lunging in at Fabregas as the Gunners turned the pattern of play in their favour after the goal.
Their position was strengthened further in the 58th minute when another error by Johnson, who mis-controlled a Fabregas shot under pressure from Arshavin, allowed the Russian to nip past him and fire in a shot that flew in off Reina's right-hand post. With 25 minutes to go midfield playmaker Alberto Aquilani, who had been left on the bench despite starting in midweek against Fiorentina, replaced the more defensively-minded Mascherano and then Rafa Benitez threw on David Ngog, the France Under 21 forward, in one final throw of the dice.
But despite having three strikers and Gerrard and Aquilani on the pitch, Liverpool failed to create a clear-cut opening in the closing stages as the visitors comfortably held on. * With agencies