Sunday December 21st, 2014

In the first half against Arsenal, few of the Liverpool faithful that gathered for Sunday worship in their Anfield cathedral would have believed that they would be celebrating a late equalizer with crazed relief.

How the fans of both clubs view the 2-2 draw depends very much if they are disposed to see their cup of eggnog as half full or half empty.

“We were the dominant team throughout the whole game and created enough chances to get the victory,” Adam Lallana of Liverpool told Sky Sports.

Against a team that cherishes the ball, Liverpool had almost two thirds of possession and completed more than twice as many passes as Arsenal. The Liverpool pressing game was working again.

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Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, praised his team while criticizing the hallowed Anfield turf.

“The quality of our passing and movement on a terrible pitch …was fantastic,” he told Sky. “We are starting to move back to where we’ve been over the last couple of years.”

It’s true. Yet for all its qualities Liverpool was lucky to gain a point.

“That’s the way its been going for us a bit lately,” Lallana lamented.

There are reasons for that.

The two problems that have bedeviled Liverpool this season were again evident. It cannot score. It cannot stop opponents scoring. Liverpool had 27 attempts on goal, but only scored two, the first of which came from Philippe Coutinho.

At the other end, Arsenal scored with its first two attempts on target. On the stroke of half time, Liverpool failed to clear a free kick, twice. Martin Skrtel allowed himself to be beaten at the far post by Mathieu Debuchy, who is five and a half inches shorter. Debuchy headed Arsenal level.

“We’ve got to be better going in the box,” Rodgers said. “It’s not about organization, it’s not about set up, it’s about winning the duel and we lost three.”

Liverpool played three center backs. In the 65th minute, none was in the vicinity when the lone central striker, Olivier Giroud, finished a neat Arsenal passing move from close range.

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“One player in the box and we need to be close.” Rodgers said. “It’s about decision making: When to be marking space when to be marking the man.”

That strike meant that, including its four goals against Newcastle last week, Arsenal had scored with its last six strikes on target. It did manage a third, tame, strike on target at the very end.

Liverpool’s desperation was epitomized by Fabio Borini who came on after 74 minutes, earned one yellow card after 90 minutes and a second two minutes later.

There were nine minutes added because of a delay while Skrtel’s bleeding head was repaired in the second half. Skrtel made the most of those extra minutes, and Per Mertesacker’s lack of appetite for collisions. Skrtel charged in and leapt past the hesitant German to bullet Liverpool’s second goal with his bandaged head in the 97th minute.

When Arsenal last visited Anfield in February, it conceded four goals in the first 19 minutes and lost 5-1.

“Last year was a bit in our mind,” Arsène Wenger, the Arsenal manager, told Sky. “We didn’t play enough and lost too many balls and our flow was not there.”

“We played a bit with the handbrake.”

Yet this match also continued Arsenal’s  worrying pattern. It is alternating very good performances with quite horrible ones.

Liverpool’s pressure and Arsenal’s nerves might explain the imbalance in possession. The 35 percent possession was the lowest the Gunners have managed in a Premier League game since OPTA started keeping the stats in 2003. Yet keeping the ball is part of the DNA of a Wenger team. If  Arsenal does not have the ball, it has nothing.

In February when Arsenal and Liverpool met, they were the top two teams in the Premier League.  Now they are sixth and tenth. On Sunday, it was clear why.

Short corners

• Can we play you every week? -- The last three seasons have been long, desperate struggles for Sunderland. The one positive for the fans at the Stadium of Light has been its derby results against Newcastle.

The four points Sunderland picked up against its neighbor in 2012-13 were the difference between survival and relegation. The next season, it picked up six derby points – again exactly the margin of safety.

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History repeated itself on Sunday in a Tyne-Wear derby that was consistently robust and exciting and, in patches, well-played.

In the dying minutes, Adam Johnson, a former Newcastle apprentice, struck for the third  straight year at St James’ Park. That gave Sunderland a 1-0 victory, a record fourth straight derby triumph.

Sunderland climbed four points clear of the relegation zone. If it keeps struggling to score goals and, therefore, win games, it knows it can expect some relief on the first weekend in April when it plays Newcastle again.

• Silva gold -- It might seem bizarre that, with all the money Manchester City has spent, it does not have a single fit striker going into the busy Christmas period. It might also seem odd that, with all the money the club has put into its youth system, there are no youngsters it is prepared to offer the chance to step up.

Instead, James Milner, who has the virtue of not being a star name, was asked to move out of his comfort zone and go up against the robust Crystal Palace central defenders on Saturday.

Milner got nowhere. Yet one of his more celebrated teammates showed that what distinguishes great players is the ability to adapt. David Silva, who has been happy to use his talents creating chances for Sergio Agüero, showed that he can take them too, venturing into the area and scoring the first two goals, the second with Agüero-like finesse.

Even without strikers, City still crushed Palace, 3-0, to move level with Chelsea.

• Passive United -- Christian Benteke scored a wonderful goal for Aston Villa. Fabian Delph was heroic in midfield, especially after the home team was reduced to 10 men with 35 minutes left. Villa’s bravery, organization and hard work earned it a 1-1 draw.

Yet Louis van Gaal, the Manchester United manager, was quite clear where the blame lay after his team “gave away two points.”

“We don’t start with enough aggressivity.” The Dutchman told the BBC. “We kept the ball better and had the better positional game but you have to do something with the ball."

In case his players were in any doubt about what he thought of their effort, Van Gaal, who used all his substitutions in the second half lamented that:  “You can change only three players.”

• Dark horses -- Everything is falling into place for West Ham. The Hammers were already on a strong run when Andy Carroll returned from his latest injury. He has immediately showed the terrifying attacking power that persuaded Liverpool and then West Ham to break their transfer records to purchase the striker. The opening goal in a 2-0 victory over Leicester was his third in three games.

Everything seemed to be falling apart for fellow surprise package Southampton. But they ended a run of five straight losses with a 3-0 destruction of an Everton team that was as soft as melting toffee. Southampton rediscovered the knack of crowning pretty play with goals.

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