Liverpool secured a vital advantage over Arsenal in the battle for a place in the Premier League’s top four with a well-deserved win at Anfield. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger gambled by leaving Alexis Sanchez – his leading scorer with 17 Premier League goals – on the bench but the ploy failed miserably as Liverpool took control by the break. Roberto Firmino’s far-post finish put Liverpool ahead after nine minutes and Sadio Mane confirmed their superiority with an emphatic strike just before half-time. Sanchez, predictably, emerged as a substitute at the start of the second half and set up a goal for Danny Welbeck that gave Arsenal hope but Georginio Wijnaldum struck on the break deep into injury-time to seal Liverpool’s win. Liverpool are now up to third, level with Manchester City on 52 points – but Arsenal are now in fifth trailing that pair by two points.
Arsenal and Arsene Wenger had so much riding on this game – a meeting where they knew defeat would leave them outside the Premier League’s top four. It made his decision to leave his most dangerous attacker Sanchez on the bench totally inexplicable, Wenger’s tactical ploy backfiring badly as Liverpool assumed control in those crucial first 45 minutes. Brave or desperate? Or a touch of both? Either way it was consigned to the dustbin at the interval. Wenger preferred the physicality and aerial threat of Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck but Arsenal’s failure to arrive in any attacking positions in the first half totally negated any impact he hoped they would have. The folly of Wenger’s selection was further exposed by the manner in which Sanchez transformed Arsenal’s approach when he emerged as a substitute, setting up Welbeck’s goal – although the Chilean’s energy levels dried up as the half went on. Wenger’s decisions will come under the closest scrutiny as speculation continues about his future, and if Arsenal miss out on the Champions League failed moves like this will understandably be portrayed in an unflattering light.
Sanchez’s demeanour at the final whistle told the tale. As Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp celebrated with his backroom team, he offered the briefest of gestures to Arsenal’s fans before going straight down the tunnel. Arsenal haven’t won any of their last 11 Premier League away games against the other teams currently in the top six (W0 D5 L6). The Gunners find themselves outside the Premier League top four at the end of a day for the first time since 13 January. Alexis Sanchez has been directly involved in a league-high 26 goals in his 26 Premier League games this season, scoring 17 and assisting nine. Arsenal welcome Bayern Munich to the Emirates for the second leg of their last-16 Champions League tie on Tuesday, 7 March with a 5-1 deficit to turn around.