To round off this extravaganza of seven football matches in twenty-three days was a fixture I rarely relish as a result of having spent a number of years growing up on Merseyside, as well as the amount of people I know who are Liverpool supporters, Our Kid and my Father to name but two.
In recent times some of these clashes with the Anfield club have brought unbridled misery, despair and sheer and utter frustration; the freshest in the memory and rawest in terms of scars, being the 4-0 capitulation back in August.
Match 7 – Arsenal vs Liverpool Friday 22nd December 2017. KO: 19:45
The big question going into this game centred on the significance of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, rookie defensive midfielder come left-back, facing the league’s top goalscorer, the flying Egyptian winger Mo Salah. As it turned out that was probably the least of our worries.
After bidding farewell and season’s greetings to Fat Harry, purveyor of ‘Famous Footlong Frankfurters’ and my go-to venue for pre-match fayre, I settled into place hoping for the best but fearing the worst.
I sank lower and lower into my seat as the game got underway and the stark realisation hit me that this wasn’t going to be one of those games where everything clicked for the Gunners. Far from it in fact, Arsenal performed as if they hadn’t been formally introduced to each other and handed the initiative to a Liverpool team that hardly had to break a sweat to grab control of the match.
I fretted and continued to worry as Liverpool carved out several gilt-edged chances and when finally, inevitably, Coutinho tucked one away I started to delve far back into my mind to try and summon up justifiable excuses for when I would have to face my Dad and Our Kid over the festive period.
In all truth Liverpool could and should have been at least 3-0 up at half-time such was the ease with which they were able to recover possession, helped by the home side’s seeming inability to pass the ball to a teammate, and the speed of their counter attacks. While not wanting to put Klopp’s men on too high a pedestal it did make me wistful for days gone by when it was us that used to play with that kind of pace in the transition.
At the break I actually contemplated staying in the bar and watching Espanyol v Atletico Madrid, which was taking place at the same time. Having summoned up the courage to go back out there, when Salah (who else?) doubled Liverpool’s lead early in the second half I started to question my own sanity for even entertaining the deluded hope that for once our soft-centred prima donnas might show some kind of response.
Just as I was abandoning all hope, Arsenal suddenly remembered they were a football team and in a five minute blitz completely turned the game on its head with the kind of brilliantly incisive football that is all too rare from this current incarnation of the side. First Alexis snuck in at the back post to head home Bellerin’s cross, then Xhaka drove a shot goalwards and thanks to some diabolical goalkeeping from Mignolet allowed us to draw level. The goal to take the lead from Mesut Özil was a thing of beauty, the mercurial German playmaker exchanged passes with Lacazette, slicing through the Liverpool defence before lifting the ball over Mignolet with a dink that he deliberately hit into the ground to give it its elevation. Özil’s future is still very much unclear and it is fair to say that we could have expected more from him since his highly-vaunted arrival, but it is these little moments of magic that make him a joy to watch at times.
Of course with Arsenal being the Arsenal of recent times there was no way that we would have the in-game management nous to see out the result, and so it was to prove when Firmino’s shot proved too hard for Cech to keep out and the visitors got the equalizer they undoubtedly deserved on the balance of the match.
It was a thrilling end-to-end match for the neutral, although the defensive chaos of both sides suggests that as entertaining as it was, neither side will be able to challenge at the very top until they are able to add structure and organisation at the back. Liverpool’s recent announcement of the £75 million acquisition of Virgil van Dijk suggests that they are addressing their deficiencies; only time and the January transfer window will tell if the same can be said of Arsenal?
As I left the ground for the final time in 2017 and made the walk down to Angel tube, saddened by the realisation that my next match won’t now be until after Christmas and the visit of Chelsea on the 3rd of January… and then a trip to Orient two days later… then Forest away the day after that. In many ways this is the reassuring part of being a football obsessive, it is the drug that keeps on giving, and just as one match comes to an end, we can console ourselves with looking forward to the next one.