Burden lifted from under-fire Gunners

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1
Arsene Wenger delivered the perfect riposte to Jose Mourinho’s claim the Arsenal manager is a ‘specialist in failure’ by overseeing a victory that confirmed his side’s rehabilitation from the mauling they received at Anfield last Saturday week is complete.

Then, having seen his side set up an FA Cup quarter-final tie with Everton, the Frenchman delivered a more barbed retort to the Chelsea manager labelling Mourinho’s comments “embarrassing”.

“I am embarrassed for him, honestly,” said Wenger. “Let’s focus on things that are worth it in football. I am more disappointed in Chelsea than for me.”

That particular row has been simmering for almost a decade now but Wenger knows the only chance he has of silencing Mourinho is to end the Gunners’ long wait for a trophy. This victory took them one step closer to silverware although it could carry even greater significance when Bayern Munich visit the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday for the first leg of the Champions League last 16 tie.

Confidence has been restored and that is the least that will be required if they are to overcome the reigning European champions. Helpfully, they also appear to have fortune on their side right now.

From Arsenal’s point of view, goalscorers Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lukas Podolski made the decisive contribution; Liverpool, though, believed referee Howard Webb’s role was equally significant. Rodgers and his players were convinced they should have been awarded a second penalty six minutes after Steven Gerrard had converted from the spot in the 59th minute after Podolski had tripped Luis Suarez.

Suarez was again sent tumbling, this time by Oxlade-Chamberlain but on this occasion Webb rejected Liverpool’s claims despite the offence appearing much more clear-cut than the earlier foul.

“Absolutely we should have had a second penalty,” said Brendan Rodgers afterwards.

“The first one was a clear penalty and the second one is even clearer. I’m not sure whether it was so soon after the first one. So we are bitterly disappointed.”

The visitors were entitled to feel aggrieved although they benefited from Webb’s leniency later in the game when the match official opted against showing Gerrard a second yellow card when a caution appeared inevitable.

Ultimately though, Liverpool failed to at least force a replay because of their inability to convert a succession of good chances with Daniel Sturridge guilty of spurning three good chances he would normally have expected to take.

Not that this was a one-sided game. Liverpool certainly dominated for long periods but they were chasing the game and with more care, particularly from the wasteful Santi Cazorla, Arsenal could have had the tie wrapped up before the intense final moments of added time.

“It was vital for us to respond to the disappointing performance we had at Liverpool last week,” said Wenger. “And vital as well because we had an opportunity to go to the quarter-final of the FA Cup. I’m very pleased with our commitment and the intensity of our response.

“You could feel it was a clinical desire in my team to take every opportunity to kill them and that’s why it was a great game between two good teams.”

Wenger can draw satisfaction that his side carved out victory despite the manager’s decision to make seven changes ahead of the Bayern clash. A place in the quarter-final and fresh legs for Wednesday is as much as the Frenchman could have hoped for.

Among those left on the bench was Olivier Giroud who was the subject of more newspaper reports about an alleged breach of club discipline on the eve of the clash with Crystal Palace recently. Giroud yesterday responded to allegations he had spent the night in a hotel with model ahead of the game by making a statement on social media less than two hours before kick-off.

“I apologise to my wife, family and friends and my manager, team-mates and Arsenal fans,” he wrote. “I now have to fight for my family and for my club and obtain their forgiveness. Nothing else matters at the moment.”

Wenger explained Giroud’s absence from his team’s starting line-up by claiming the forward needed a rest. “He looked a bit tired recently,” said the manager. “He has made a statement and for the rest we will deal with it internally. I don’t think there is anything more to add to that because I want to respect his privacy.”

The 18th minute breakthrough when Oxlade-Chamberlain made the most of Liverpool’s unconvincing defending, reacting first to finish from 12 yards after Gerrard blocked Yaya Sanogo’s shot.

Yet although his side were trailing at the interval, Rodgers was entitled to believe his side were on course to take the initiative in the tie. That belief, however, lasted for less than two minutes after the restart when Podolski put the home side two up after a devastatingly incisive break.

Oxlade-Chamberlain was again involved, this time as the provider after exchanging passes with Ozil and out-pacing Agger down Liverpool’s left before pulling the ball back for Podolski who had the simplest of tasks to place the ball beyond Brad Jones from 10 yards out.

Liverpool had no option but to step up the tempo and with Suarez peppering Lukas Fabianski’s goal with shots, they halved the deficit when the Uruguay striker again broke into the box but was halted by Podolski’s needless tackle from behind. Gerrard kept his nerve and it appeared the comeback was on.

The equaliser though, never came and the reaction of Wenger’s players at the final whistle suggested a burden had been lifted from them.

ARSENAL (4-2-3-1): Fabianski 8; Jenkinson 5, Koscielny 7, Mertesacker 6, Monreal 5; Flamini 7, Arteta 6; Oxlade-Chamberlain 9 (Gibbs 75,6), Ozil 7, Podolski 6 (Cazorla 70,6); Sanogo 7 (Giroud 88,6).

LIVERPOOL (4-3-3): Jones 6; Flanagan 7, Skrtel 6, Agger 7, Cissokho 6(Henderson 62); Gerrard 7, Allen 6, Coutinho 6; Suarez 8, Sturridge 5, Sterling 8.

Man of the match: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Att: 59,801

Referee: Howard Webb.


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