Wenger wins in madcap weekend
Arsene Wenger's decoration of Arsenal's Anfield dressing room with verbal invective was long forgotten as he celebrated edging out Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill as the big winner of the Premier League's madcap, coupon-busting weekend.
In two remarkable days, Wenger shouting "you're not fit to wear the shirt" at the Arsenal players he usually defends with such fervour, and occasionally against all logic, was perhaps the most remarkable incident of them all.
Wenger delighted in an ability to still surprise his Arsenal charges after 13 years with a blast of vocal caustic soda in response to a miserable first 45 minutes at Liverpool - but not as much as he revelled in an eventual win that he declared puts them back in this maverick Premier League title race, both "mathematically and mentally."
For Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez this was meant to be another fresh start after the conclusion of a wretched Champions League campaign. Instead, to misquote The Who's Pete Townshend, this was a case of "meet the new season - same as the old season."
Liverpool boss Benitez has plenty to think about ahead of the festive programme
For those who fancied a little spice with their Premier League season after growing accustomed to the same old taste in recent campaigns, this weekend provided enough ingredients to whet the appetite for the months ahead.
Aston Villa went to Manchester United and won for the first time in 26 years, confirming that the champions are giving renewed hope to opponents and missing, understandably, the magic Cristiano Ronaldo used to provide with regularity.
Chelsea, who looked like the title was theirs for the losing after sweeping Arsenal aside at the Emirates last month, saw sudden defensive vulnerability, in particular the flaws of fading keeper Petr Cech, further exposed at Stamford Bridge in a draw against a wonderfully gallant Everton decimated by serious injuries.
Wolves went to White Hart Lane and scratched some of the sheen off Spurs' top four pretensions with the sort of victory that could keep the great old club in the Premier League.
And Bolton, almost holed below the waterline recently and with manager Gary Megson's popularity dipping even further, played out a six-goal extravaganza with Manchester City, who saw flowing attack undermined by a leaking defence.
Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal think they can win the title. Aston Villa, Spurs and Manchester City believe they can get that fourth spot - and Liverpool hope they will.
So that is at least the top seven places up for grabs even before we get to the relegation struggle. Interesting enough for you?
Liverpool and Arsenal concluded events - with Benitez hoping his side would back his bold public claim that they would definitely finish in the top four and Wenger wanting proof that his insistence that the Gunners are right in the title race would not end up resembling a desperate exercise in straw-clutching.
For Benitez, all that was left at the end was a grim finale to a game that started with promise and brought a deserved half-time lead courtesy of Dirk Kuyt.
In the end his cast-iron guarantee of Champions League football sounded as convincing as the assertion from Anfield's tannoy announcer that Frankie Goes To Hollywood's witless savaging of one of popular music's most majestic moments, Bruce Springsteen's "Born To Run", was indeed "the best version." It sounds like the pressure is affecting everyone's judgement at Anfield.
Arsenal did not leave the stamp of potential champions behind them at Anfield, despite the win. For 45 minutes they were, to put it at its most charitable, abysmal - poor in possession, lacking in conviction and a perfectly suitable case for the half-time mauling Wenger delivered.
Wenger's words of fury were given flesh and bones by Glen Johnson's own goal and what is becoming a regular piece of Anfield artistry from Andrey Arshavin. The Russian swooped on a moment of miscontrol from Johnson before lashing a finish high past the startled Pepe Reina.
At that precise second, Arshavin had the perfect strike rate of five shots and five goals at Anfield following on from his quartet in the 4-4 draw last season. It should be reported as a matter of fact that it all went downhill from there - one shot saved by Reina and another off target hitting his previously perfect average. Get your act together Andrey!
Wenger congratulates Arshavin after the Russian;s winning goal at Anfield
Wenger's clenched fist salute at the final whistle, and his jaunty demeanour later, illustrated the importance of this victory, especially after the opportunity presented to Arsenal by the failure of their close rivals.
It must not blind Wenger to the fact that Arsenal were unremarkable for large portions of a low-quality game, especially when Javier Mascherano was dogging Cesc Fabregas' every move.
To come to Anfield and win, even with Liverpool in their current parlous state, is not to be sniffed at, but this current Anfield model is prone to implosion when the slightest pressure is applied and this proved their undoing once more.
Arsenal would do well not to get carried away. The need for a powerful additional midfield presence remains and Arsenal's striking resources look wafer-thin, but this was three priceless points.
The result enabled Wenger to remind those who questioned Arsenal after their sobering brush with Chelsea that he had forecast, to a measure of mockery, that Carlo Ancelotti's side would drop points.
He did. And they have. Arsenal, however, will need to show more than they did here if Wenger is to have the last word.
For Liverpool, this season of unremitting misery continues - and it was all watched, with cruel irony, by the player whose absence has been touted as a major factor in their demise.
Xabi Alonso, who was spotted stifling yawns during the first half, was watching from the stands as Liverpool cried out for some of his class and creativity in central midfield. Alonso's stature has grown with every game he hasn't played for Liverpool - sometimes out of proportion with what he actually achieved at Anfield.
As he left one young fan pleaded for him to return, a ploy as hopeless and misguided as the succession of long, aimless balls Liverpool banged towards a tiring Fernando Torres in the closing stages - a failing Alonso would have at least tried to remedy.
When questioned on Liverpool's continuing slide, Benitez - who must be running out of brave faces now - said: "It is a question of confidence not quality." If only this was true, because Liverpool's response to going behind lacked both confidence and quality.
Even The Kop looked and sounded like it had given up long before the end. No late Liverpool surge, no glimmer of hope, not even in another brief run-out for Alberto Aquilani.
Liverpool can point, with some justifcation, to Howard Webb's mystifying refusal to award a penalty when Steven Gerrard was fouled by William Gallas, but there has been enough papering over of the cracks recently and this would have been another example.
The next new start comes against Wigan at Anfield on Wednesday, but there have been so many at Liverpool this season that Benitez should keep a pair of jump leads handy in the dug-out.
So Wenger was in sprightly form as he leaped aboard the Arsenal coach for the journey back to the capital after a weekend in which almost all the cards fell nicely in his favour.
Arsenal were unconvincing, even in victory, but the joy for Wenger comes in the knowledge his team still had enough about them to get three points - which is more than can be said for Chelsea and Manchester United.
Wenger insisted on Friday that the bar had been lowered on what will be needed to win the title. This weekend proved him right.
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