A spiky, feisty, fascinating game ended amid fury and a swirl of recrimination against the referee Howard Webb, who gave Liverpool one penalty but denied them another and then failed to send Steven Gerrard off for a tackle that clearly warranted a second caution. But of greater long-term importance is what this means for Arsenal – and perhaps for the title race in general.
Liverpool, who trail the Premier League leaders Chelsea by four points, are left fighting on just one front, and freshness might augment their qualities, while Arsenal, after surviving some anxious moments, have regained their footing after a hugely disappointing previous week.
Battered 5-1 at Anfield last Saturday and sluggish in drawing against Manchester United on Wednesday in the league, Arsenal rediscovered some spark in yesterday's FA Cup fifth-round encounter and should be reinvigorated, morale restored.
Yet for Arsenal, the day had begun with an unwanted distraction, as Olivier Giroud appeared to confirm on Twitter that British newspaper reports of an extramarital affair were true. Giroud almost certainly would not have started anyway, rested for Wednesday’s Champions League last-16 tie against Bayern Munich, offering a first start to the France international Yaya Sanogo.
The 21-year-old striker looked raw, and was nervy early on, but once he settled, he provided an outlet. He had a key role in the opening goal, taking down Mesut Ozil’s cross and striking a firm shot that cannoned into the path of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who calmly knocked in the loose ball.
In the absence of Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott through injury, Arsenal have lacked dynamism going forward in recent games, which in turn has diminished the impact of Ozil, left with nobody to slide his through-balls to. Oxlade-Chamberlain, quick, strong and direct, offered that drive, and it was his capacity to run beyond defenders that led to the second goal as he accelerated onto Ozil’s pass and cut the ball back for Lukas Podolski, who slammed home after 47 minutes.
That seemed harsh on Liverpool, who had a number of chances – Sturridge was twice denied by Lukas Fabianski, who also made a fine save with his foot from Luis Suarez, and sliced wide in front of an open goal having rounded the goalkeeper – and they were given a lifeline when Podolski needlessly hacked at Suarez in the penalty area. Gerrard converted the penalty and, at that point, Liverpool had over half an hour to hammer on the door against an increasingly jittery Arsenal.
They should have got back into it after 70 minutes, Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly blocking Suarez in the box right in front of Webb but, mystifyingly, he decided not to award a penalty.
It was not the only baffling decision from England’s 2014 World Cup official. He also failed to book Podolski in the first half for what looked to be a cautionable foul and then did not show a second yellow card to Gerrard for a lunge on Oxlade-Chamberlain toward the end of the match, at which point the whole stadium seemed to join in a chant of, “You’re not fit to referee”.
To say the controversy overshadowed a fine FA Cup match would be misleading, for the controversy was merely part of it.
Arsenal rested players before Wednesday’s crunch game against European champions Bayern, but if every cup tie had the fury and the drive of the final minutes, nobody would talk about the competition losing its lustre.
These are two teams desperate for a trophy, two teams who probably see themselves as being on a level. Three matches between them have now brought a comfortable win apiece, plus this tense, tight struggle. Arsenal got the break and it not only has taken them into a FA Cup quarter-final against Everton, but might also saved their season.