Arsenal 4: Bellerin 37', Ozil 40', Alexis 45', Giroud 90+1'
Liverpool 1: Henderson (pen.) 76'
The four goals really should have come inside the first quarter of an hour. It was a mirror image of last season's reverse fixture but for the goals and the fact that Liverpool were in black instead of yellow. Arsenal rampant, Liverpool unable to complete a pass or get into the opposition half, and certain doom just around the corner. Or maybe from a corner. Either way, Arsenal were the only winners.
Eventually they were, but it came via a late first-half flurry rather than their through their suffocating, dominant opening spell. Simon Mignolet kept the host's two best chances out, first with a wonderful save from a low Santi Cazorla shot, and then on a relatively weak left-footed effort by Aaron Ramsey. Both were the product of some sharp Arsenal passing, but the buildup was attributable only to Liverpool, who consistently gave the ball away deep in their own half and nearly gave away another only for Kolo Toure to intervene just before Ramsey could nudge Arsenal ahead.
Once they settled, however, Liverpool looked good value and should have actually taken the lead. Promising link-up between Philippe Coutinho, Lazar Markovice, and Raheem Sterling--who started as the striker on the day, with the latter pair in support and Daniel Sturridge on the bench--left Markovic free on goal, but the young Serbian's pass to Sterling was just barely too heavy, and rather than a tap-in that would have given the visitors a 1-0 lead, it was their best chance of the day from open play gone.
Arsenal gradually took control back, and in a devastating eight-minute spell near the end of the half, they settled the match. First it was Hector Bellerin dancing in past a hopeless Alberto Moreno and curling a wonderful strike past Mignolet, then came Mesut Ozil's free-kick that wrong-footed the Belgian, and finally, a breathtaking touch and finish from just outside the area by Alexis Sanchez. It should have happened sooner, but Arsenal had the goals their first-half display deserved, and Liverpool had lost the points and any hopes of a top-four finish.
Daniel Sturridge came on for the second half, but as has been the case since his return from injury, he had little influence on the run of play, and Arsenal were mostly comfortable despite Liverpool changing formation in an effort to change the match. Sterling had two penalty shouts after challenges from Bellerin, the second of which was awarded by Anthony Taylor, with Jordan Henderson blasting through David Ospina to cut the lead to 4-1.
Any chances of a miracle were ruled out with the sending-off of Emre Can, who earned his second yellow with a poor challenge on Danny Welbeck. The tackle looked poor whether or not it was the result of Can's studs going out from underneath him, and the man advantage--and further hapless defending from Moreno and Toure--allowed Olivier Giroud to settle the match once and for all with another curling shot that beat Mignolet to his right.
It was deserved, it was disappointing, and, as far as Liverpool's challenge for a Champions League spot goes, plenty destructive. Before kickoff there were hopes that Brendan Rodgers was going to pack the midfield, shifting from the setup that's been ineffective since the first half against Swansea, but his decision to deploy Henderson at right wingback left Lucas and Joe Allen desperately exposed, and while they could have taken the lead after finding their footing for a brief spell, Liverpool were once again overrun.
With Martin Skrtel and Emre Can suspended and Kolo Toure producing a truly awful performance, Rodgers might be forced to alter his preferred formation, which has become increasingly exposed in the weeks since the win over Manchester City, for the Blackburn replay. That would, based on today's evidence, be an excellent idea.
Certainly plenty of debate to be had about what exactly he shifts to--though with limited personnel and an attack that continues to struggle, he could do worse than to roll the dice with Dejan Lovren and Mamadou Sakho in central defense, Javier Manquillo and Alberto Moreno at fullback, Lucas at the base of a midfield diamond with Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho shuttling and Raheem Sterling at the tip, and Daniel Sturridge offered strike support in the form of Mario Balotelli, who was left out today--but what's indisputable is that change is needed if Liverpool are going to once again get back on course as the final month of the season plays out.