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Saturday, March 3, 2012
An Anfield smash and grab

By Ravi Ubha
ESPN.com

Robin van Persie
The majestic Dutch striker tallied his 24th and 25th Premier League goals in beating Liverpool, lifting the Gunners to three precious points.

LONDON -- Fans of Liverpool and Arsenal needed a hefty dose of cheer. After all, Liverpool's glory days are long gone, and ditto for the Gunners, whose 'Invincibles' have turned into "The Young and the Trophyless."

Liverpool was expected to be much more involved in the race for fourth, yet has fizzled following a good start under King (or should that be Crusty?) Kenny Dalglish, and the Gunners, while occupying the final Champions League spot in the Premier League heading into the weekend, are on course for another campaign without silverware: on life support in the Champions League and deservedly dumped from the FA Cup by a hungrier Sunderland. (Oh, yes, the pitches were rubbish ... )

More misery appeared to be on the way last Sunday. Arsenal, with pressure continuing to mount on Arsene Wenger, fell behind 2-0 to Tottenham, suddenly the team in vogue in North London, at the Emirates. Later, Liverpool trailed second-tier Cardiff 1-0 in the Carling Cup final at Wembley. But both rallied, with Arsenal sweeping past an increasingly disorganized, chaotic Tottenham 5-2, and Liverpool edging the Bluebirds on penalties.

Relief -- and momentum. All of a sudden, both sides were being linked with continental stars, and Saturday's early kickoff at Anfield thus had draw written all over it, especially since seven of their previous dozen meetings ended in deadlocks.

Arsenal named an unchanged side, despite injury concerns to talisman Robin van Persie and central defender Thomas Vermaelen, and while Liverpool was without key regulars Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson and longterm absentee Lucas (and started Jordan Henderson!), no one had downed the Reds at home this season (eight draws, mind you).

Ultimately, starting van Persie would prove to be a masterstroke for Wenger, whose team sheet selections are routinely scrutinized. It was, of course, van Persie who scored twice, including the winner in injury time, as Arsenal prevailed 2-1.

If ever there was a smash and grab, this was it. The pretty stuff was nowhere to be seen. Van Persie, for one, was nowhere near his best. Against Spurs, he tracked back like a two-way midfielder and dropped deep to receive the ball, often starting Arsenal attacks. On Saturday, nursing a sore groin, he spent most of his time in the Liverpool half, content to focus on the chances he had.

Had two, made two.

But the three points for Arsenal can largely be credited to keeper Wojciech Szczesny, who confirmed his status as one of the best in the division, and the work of Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny in the center of defense. It was Szczesny's brilliance -- plus the woodwork -- that allowed a lethargic Arsenal to somehow enter halftime level at 1-1.

Opting for a 4-5-1 formation (leaving Andy Carroll and Craig Bellamy on the bench), no doubt wary of Arsenal's masterclass in midfield last week, Liverpool bossed the midfield battle in the first half. Tomas Rosicky, Alex Song and Mikel Arteta, surprisingly not booed given his Everton roots, were overrun as Liverpool pressed and pressed.

More than once, Arsenal left back Kieran Gibbs left ample space behind him as he moved forward, and it cost Arsenal on the opener. Caught upfield, Henderson took advantage and fired in a dangerous cross that Koscielny guided into his own net.

Should it be much of a surprise? Not really, since Aaron Ramsey suffered the same humiliation in the reverse fixture in August and Arsenal has netted five own goals this season, tops by far in the Prem.

Liverpool supporters might well argue that Szczesny shouldn't have been on the pitch past the 20-minute mark. Called for a foul in the box for apparently taking down the lively Luis Suarez -- replays appeared to show minimal contact, yet Suarez engineered another theatrical dive -- Szczesny wasn't further punished by referee Mark Halsey, who tends to keep the cards in his pocket.

Szczesny picked himself up, dived to his right to keep out Dirk Kuyt's penalty, and was even better when he reacted in time to push away the Dutchman's rebound. Despite the victory on Sunday, Liverpool hardly impressed from the penalty spot.

After Szczesny dazzled again by keeping out Henderson and Suarez soon struck the post, van Persie's near-post header from a Bacary Sagna cross made it 1-1. The Dutch striker intelligently shed the experienced Jamie Carragher, who was deputizing for Agger, and Pepe Reina had little chance.

It did little, though, to spring Arsenal into life. Suarez, on a mazy run, was on course to score one of the goals of the season until Szczesny intervened. Defender Martin Skrtel, one of the Wembley heroes, missed a free header, and Kuyt's deft effort was greeted by the post when Charlie Adam fizzed in a low cross from the left.

Crosses were the order of the day for Liverpool, with Gibbs, whose positional sense often resembles that of a lower league defender, particularly guilty. Vermaelen and Koscielny had to mop up time and again, often making last ditch clearances.

The second half was slightly more balanced, although Liverpool still enjoyed the momentum. Szczesny's handling remained impeccable, and he was quick off his line to repel Skrtel's header in the box and Stewart Downing's pass to Suarez in space from six yards. Downing, who shone against Cardiff, is still waiting for his first goal -- or assist -- in the Premier League this season.

Henderson, keeping the more dangerous Bellamy and Maxi out of the lineup, certainly made an impact: He crunched into, accidentally it seemed, Arteta in the opening stages of the second, leaving the Spaniard with a concussion.

Theo Walcott, the two-goal hero against Spurs, dissolved after he tested Reina with a sneaky effort within 10 minutes. In Walcott's defense, Rosicky and Arteta, prior to his departure, didn't match Sunday's performance, either.

Wenger suggested a win for Arsenal would kill off Liverpool's Champions League hopes. The gap increased to 10 points thanks to van Persie's wonderful volley from Song's pinpoint, lofted pass, so he's likely on the money. That and RvP's goals -- his 24th and 25th of the Premier League season -- pushed him past 30 in all competitions, a truly magnificent season. Meanwhile, attracting the likes of Eden Hazard and Javi Martinez, those mentioned in a possible move to Liverpool in the offseason, will be harder if the Reds are competing in the Europa League.

For Arsenal, three points ahead of Chelsea entering Saturday's later kickoffs, the fine league form continues. The bigger question is whether or not the Gunners, who need to overturn a 4-0 first leg deficit, can make thing interesting against Milan in the Champions League on Tuesday.

London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.