LONDON – Arsenal outlasted a gritty Liverpool side 2-1 on Sunday thanks to a goal and an assist from Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to book their spot against Everton in the FA Cup quarterfinals in a simply fantastic game of football. For the Gunners it was sweet revenge a week after the 5-1 pasting they took at Anfield. For Liverpool, the only joy will be the knowledge that they played in a classic match.
This was a great Cup tie, with a fleet Liverpool squaring off against a makeshift but stout Arsenal side in a game that neither truly deserved to lose. Their Premiership encounter last weekend had been one-sided indeed, but this was not, an end-to-end and absorbing contest that showcased the best in English football. At the end, both teams looked gassed, a testament to the fact that they had truly left everything out on the field.
"It was a vital for us to respond to a disappointing performance we had against [Liverpool] last week and vital for us as well because it was an opportunity to reach the quarterfinals of the FA Cup," Arsene Wenger said after the victory. "I was very pleased with the intensity of the response, we were committed and determined, and there was a clinical desire in my team, and that's why I think it was a great game between two big teams. Everyone may question the FA Cup, but I think it was a great performance."
Yet, at first, it looked like we might have a replay of last week's game at Anfield: Liverpool came flying out of the blocks and might have been 2-0 up after only five minutes. As was the case last week, it was Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge providing the fireworks. The young English striker forced Lukasz Fabianski into a save inside of a minute after Steven Gerrard fed him through with a finely-weighted ball, then hit side net after the keeper scrambled out to force him wide after a delicious bit of service from Suarez.
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Arsenal seemed stunned, and Wenger was quickly out of his own dugout, barking orders in an uncharacteristic fashion. Whether his words were heard is unclear. What is known is that Mathieu Flamini immediately got in Nacho Monreal's face, and began steering the play from midfield. Arms flailing, mouth running, Flamini began pulling the strings while keeping up a running dialogue with referee Howard Webb, pleading here, forcing the issue there. Whatever he said worked.
Just past a quarter-hour, Jon Flanagan made a rash challenge on Monreal to set up a free kick on the far flank, just on the edge of the area. Mikel Arteta saw his take cleared, but only as far as Mesut Ozil. The German re-set the play, finding Yana Sanogo, making his first start for the Gunners. He chested the ball down well and fired, only to see it blocked -- right onto Oxlade-Chamberlain's laces. Brad Jones could only fish the ball out of the back of his net.
The rest of the half would follow a pattern: one side would race at the other's net with abandon, probing a weakness. The shots would be blocked, and on the break, the other would get the ball just past the halfway line before being felled. Flamini, Gerrard and Philippe Coutinho would go into Webb's book in that manner. But the man who stepped over the line was Raheem Sterling -- and he was lucky to remain on the pitch. Raging after seeing a ball run out of play, he put his hands on the ref's chest, and was fortunate that Webb did not reach for the back pocket, as he was fully entitled to do.
After the break, Fabianski was called into action immediately to make what proved to be a game-defining stop. Suarez, ghosting past Monreal, had a free shot on net that the keeper was barely able to keep out with the tip of his boot.
Then, moments later, Sterling and Aly Cissokho got their feet tangled on the far touchline, allowing Ozil to collect the ball and push it forward. Oxlade-Chamberlain took it in full flight and cut the ball back to Podolski right on the penalty spot. Eluding Gerrard, he rifled his shot past Jones to double Arsenal's lead.
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It would not hold. Ozil found himself free on the far left side of the area but Jones came up with the save to preserve the scoreline. And that proved a costly spurned chance for the Gunners, as three minutes later, they saw their lead halved from the spot.
Podloski made a rash tackle from behind on Suarez, and Webb had no choice but to award the spot-kick. Gerrard sent Fabianski the wrong way, and from then on, it was off to the races. Oxlade-Chamberlain nearly conceded a second penalty in short order, again on Suarez, but perhaps because the Uruguayan's reputation precedes him, Webb declined to give it. It was a lucky break for the Londoners as it was as stone-cold a penalty as you'll see.
Fabianski would then make a series of saves, including a fine stop on Sturridge and a great cut-out on a ball whipped in by Coutinho. But all he could do was watch when, at the death, Daniel Agger nearly headed one into his unguarded net. Fortunately for him, and Arsenal, it went wide.
"After the result we had last week we knew we had to turn this around and make a statement," said Oxlade-Chamberlain after the victory. "The goal got us off to a good start and the start we needed and then the second goal got us in good stead. We gave one back but we were able to see the game out and get the result."
The Gunners now face Bayern Munich in a key UEFA Champions League fixture ( live, Wednesday, FOX Sports 2, 2:30 p.m. ET ). "It's been a tough run of fixtures for us with three big games in a week, and now we have a tough game on Wednesday," added Oxlade-Chamberlain. "It's definitely a confidence booster and we can take that into the game against Bayern."
As for Liverpool, they go home to lick their wounds.