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Featured: Dominant display puts Reds into title conversation, whether Rodgers likes it or not - by Joel Tracy

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Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers played down his side’s title chances in the buildup to Saturday’s clash against league leaders Arsenal. If he was hoping his Reds would fly under the radar as the title race heated up, perhaps he should have shared this plan with his players.  Days after the Northern Irishman declared his squad were out of the title race they produced a result, and an accompanying performance that didn’t just suggest Liverpool were genuine title contenders; they seemed to shout it from the rooftops, heralding their return into a conversation they’ve scarcely entered over the past several years.

 

From the opening minute - which included an unlikely opener from burly centre back Martin Skrtel - the Reds dominated the same opposition that thoroughly outclassed them at the Emirates in the fall. Liverpool were simply too aggressive, too physical, too disciplined; Skrtel, along with his partner in central defence (and former Arsenal Invincible) Kolo Toure neutralized the Gunners’ target man Olivier Giroud with a mix of physical dominance and disciplined, alert positioning. The Reds outhustled and outmuscled their opponents all over the pitch, with Jon Flanagan, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson in particular harassing the shell-shocked Gunners whenever the away side were in possession.

 

To put the lopsided triumph down simply to Liverpool’s combination of energy and brawn, however, only tells half the story. In addition to their physical superiority, Liverpool battered the Arsenal defence with an irresistible blend of creativity, fluidity and unselfishness in attack. Steven Gerrard continued his yearlong brilliance on set pieces, teeing up Skrtel for the opening two goals with a pair of sizzling deliveries from a free kick and a corner, respectively. In addition to rattling the upright with an audacious effort (again off a Gerrard set piece), Luis Suarez played provider, masterfully one touching a lobbed pass into Sturridge’s path, only for the striker to slice the chip wide, before the Uruguayan one-touched a low cross to the far post for Raheem Sterling to tap in for the third.

 

The teenage Sterling snatched headlines with his first Liverpool brace, constantly tormenting the Arsenal backline with quicksilver forays into the attacking third. Coutinho, recently maligned for a string of unconvincing performances pulled the strings in a masterful midfield display, highlighted by his intercepting a Mesut Ozil pass, turning upfield and unleashing an inch-perfect through ball from inside his own half to set up Sturridge, who easily converted a one-on-one with the keeper to stretch Liverpool’s lead to four.

 

More impressive even than their physical dominance or their creative brilliance, however, was the confidence Liverpool displayed throughout the match. Facing the league leaders, a side they hadn’t beaten at home in several years the Reds endeavoured to take the game to Arsenal with an audacious resolve that belied their recent status as title race afterthoughts. When in possession the leaders had no answer for Liverpool’s suffocating, tireless pressing, and their defence were constantly befuddled by the Reds’ potent combination of intuitive, precise movement and passing.

 

Nowhere was the home side’s newfound confidence more evident than in their Number 7, from the aforementioned blast off the woodwork to the Uruguayan’s howitzer of a free kick, barely tipped past the top corner from a distance even Cristiano Ronaldo would surely deem speculative at best. Confidence, for Suarez has never been a problem. But on Saturday, all over the pitch the Reds stood up to their more highly-touted counterparts and seized control of the game.

 

For Liverpool’s third, Henderson harassed Ozil near midfield, the former Anfield afterthought getting the better of the decorated German, before sending Suarez into space on the right to set up Sterling’s first strike. And when he wasn’t delivering pinpoint through balls into the heart of the Arsenal defence, Coutinho spent much of the match nipping at the heels of Jack Wilshere in the centre of the pitch. Wilshere, recently billed as England’s shining beacon of midfield promise, seemed unable to cope with Coutinho’s newfound steel, complaining repeatedly to the referee about his treatment at the hands of the diminutive Brazilian, before allowing his frustration to land him in the referee’s book.

 

Having been tempered by defeat in Christmastime visits to the Etihad and Stamford Bridge, Liverpool appear to have emerged stronger, more resilient, and confident in the knowledge that they can stand toe to toe with any side in the league. Saturday’s triumph, on the heels of their shellacking of city rivals Everton two weeks prior should only enhance the self-belief of a side whose home form in particular has been sensational this season.

 

The display of aggression and precision put on by the home side Saturday surely has presumptive title favourites Manchester City and Chelsea - the two sides that humbled the Reds on their respective home grounds over the festive period - dreading their upcoming trips to Anfield. When they arrive they will meet a Liverpool side different in one crucial way from the one that failed to take a point from either contest a little over a month ago. Rodgers’ men - despite his carefully measured comments - have found a swagger and a confidence that evokes memories of dominant Liverpool sides gone by.  When the season comes to a close and the final points are tallied, that may prove even more valuable than a 5-1 demolition of a fellow title contender.

 

 

Joel Tracy

@jtras2

 

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The display of aggression and precision put on by the home side Saturday surely has presumptive title favourites Manchester City and Chelsea - the two sides that humbled the Reds on their respective home grounds in Decemb

 

"Humbled"??

 

Really

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Thanks Gav. I did mean humbled though, kmb986.

 

Liverpool were riding high, particularly off their demolition of Spurs at White Hart Lane and I think it was a humbling experience to lose a pair of leads and walk away from those two matches without a point.

 

They weren't outclassed, and after standing toe to toe with two title contenders one can't say they were devastated, but I'd argue they were indeed humbled-knocked down a peg after a pair of setbacks-though you're certainly welcome to disagree.

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