Late Fabregas goal hits Liverpool title hopes

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An incomparably atmospheric football cockpit it may remain, but Anfield is a fortress no longer. If Liverpool are to fulfil a deeply held desire to brandish the Premier League trophy around the famous old ground before they leave, it is their home form they will have to improve.

This fourth league draw in five home matches follows the Champions League defeat here by Marseilles. And while a draw with Arsenal is hardly to be sniffed at given the Gunners’ form – this takes their undefeated league run to 17 matches – it still came as a deep disappointment after leading for more than 70 minutes.

It will also have been unpopular at the other end of the East Lancs Road, where Manchester United’s brief spell at the top ended because Arsenal, with the same points and goal difference, have scored more goals. Liverpool also remain undefeated but are down in sixth place, six points behind the leaders and are hardly playing with the confidence expected of a team yet to lose a league match.

And while this improved on their midweek debacle against Besiktas, losing the lead so late will hardly quieten the trenchant criticisms of Rafael Benitez’s tactical acumen that were voiced pre-match in the pubs on Walton Breck Road.

It had started so well for the home team. Steven Gerrard’s eighth-minute thunderbolt from John Arne Riise’s rolled free-kick on the edge of the box, put them in their favourite position – holding a lead that allows them to wait for opponents to attack, creating opportunities to counter-punch.

There is a risk inherent in such tactics when the opponents are as potent as Arsenal, with Cesc Fabregas prompting, Alexander Hleb offering pace and subtle angles and Emmanuel Adebayor lurking predatorily.

Arsenal dominated the remainder of the first half and had their moments – Adebayor forced a point-blank save from José Reina, then Sami Hyypia had to hook Tomas Rosicky’s angled flick from under the bar.

Liverpool packed men behind the ball, which often left Fernando Torres, or his second-half replacement Peter Crouch, isolated up front, hoping against hope for assistance to arrive from Gerrard or the industrious Dirk Kuyt. Even so, they came closer to another goal before half-time and Manuel Almunia had to make a leaping save from Gerrard’s rising 27th-minute shot.

A sense that this might be Liverpool’s day increased when Emmanuel Eboué struck the post in the 54th minute and Fabregas, 15 yards from an open goal, thumped the rebound wide.

As the second-half went on, Arsenal’s elegant attacking patterns grew increasingly frenetic, and a decisive Liverpool break seemed possible. Instead, with 11 minutes to go, a superbly timed ball from Hleb released Fabregas, who did little more than prod his shot, but diverted the ball just enough to send it past Reina.

Arsenal might even have stolen it, but this time Fabregas struck the post and Nicklas Bendtner fluffed the rebound.

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