No-one can accuse Arsenal and Liverpool of not getting into the Christmas spirit. The top end of the Premier League may be a haven of cut-throat capitalism but here at the Emirates two of its biggest teams were in excessively generous mood, gifting goal after goal to one another, producing one of the most entertaining, unpredictable and festive matches of the whole season, never mind the Christmas calendar.
This was a game of brilliant attacking play, almost all of it by Liverpool, some lax finishing but some of the worst defending and goalkeeping you will see in a game between two of our biggest clubs. Neither of these teams has a reputation for frugality and yet even here their wholesome riotous generosity was remarkable.
First Arsenal did little to stop Liverpool going 2-0 up. Then Liverpool gifted Arsenal three goals in six farcical minutes. Then Arsenal returned the favour allowing Liverpool to level. Little wonder that Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are the top three.
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From Arsene Wenger it was the height of festive optimism, keeping the same team and system that beat Newcastle United here on Saturday. Granit Xhaka and Jack Wilshere are not exactly known for their defensive solidity but here they were stationed in front of Arsenal’s back four and told to repel wave after wave of Liverpool attacks.
The problem is that neither Wilshere nor Xhaka can tackle and as the first half went on, they found it harder and harder to stop them. Liverpool squeezed high up the pitch and when they turned it on, half way through the first half, Arsenal simply could not get out. But without the protection afforded by a back five, Arsenal left spaces for Liverpool to hurt them. Roberto Firmino tested Petr Cech with one far post header and then, two minutes later, flashed another across the box that no-one turned in.
It did not matter: one minute later another Liverpool break saw them go ahead. James Milner and Coutinho played a one-two, taking Wilshere out of the game, and Milner darted a pass through to Mohamed Salah. Racing forward with Laurent Koscielny, his cross deflected off the defender, looping up for Coutinho to head in.
Coutinho opened the scoring with a neat header (Getty)
Every time Liverpool attacked they looked like scoring. Next time, Milner’s forward pass found Salah after Koscielny slipped. Cech saved the shot and Sadio Mane’s acrobatic follow-up whistled just over the bar. Salah miskicked when through on goal one more time, and it was little suprirse when Shkodran Mustafi came on at half-time.
But Mustafi was powerless to stop Salah from doubling Liverpool’s lead soon after the restart. Having already had one shot saved, Salah surged down the right, from deep inside his own half. He skipped past Wilshere, exchanged passes with Coutinho and swerved into the box. He meant to curl his shot round Mustafi but it took a slight nick and flew into the bottom corner.
That was 2-0 to Liverpool and they should have slowed the game down and seen the win out. But instead they lost control, giving away three goals in six barely believable minutes. First Hector Bellerin clipped in a cross from the right and Joe Gomez at the far post switched off so badly that he did not realise Sanchez was charging forward until the header was into the net.
Salah made it two (Getty)
That woke up the Arsenal players and fans, and they started to try their luck. Three minutes later they were level. Xhaka has his flaws but he does have a powerful left boot, not that Simon Mignolet seems to know. His hopeful 30-yarder rocketed straight through one weak glove and into the net, another moment of blithe Liverpool carelessness.
At 2-2 Liverpool were finally awake but the momentum was so far against them they could do nothing to keep out the third. Ozil surged forward with the ball, played it in to Lacazette who, holding off a defender, backheeled a return pass. Ozil dinked the ball over Mignolet and the crowd, mutinous six minutes before, erupted.
The crowd went wild when Ozil levelled the score (Getty)
So could Arsenal then do what Liverpool could not and hang on to the lead? No they could not. The Liverpool equaliser was so softly preventable it made you wonder how Arsenal had got ahead in the first place.
Salah fed Emre Can who found Firmino, just inside the box. His first touch gave him room to shoot, but Cech should have been equal to it. Instead one soft hand, worse than Mignolet’s error at the opposite end, allowed the ball to loop up and into the net.
That was the last goal, as close as Salah and then Sanchez went at the very end. Neither side could take the three points, but then neither side deserved them.