Andrey Arshavin produced a stunning four-goal show to blow a huge hole in Liverpool’s title dream as Arsenal secured a 4-4 draw at Anfield on Tuesday.
The Russian striker — the first player to score four league goals in a single league match at Anfield since Dennis Westcott for Wolves in 1946 — produced a quality display as Rafa Benitez’s side committed defensive suicide to leave Manchester United firm favorites to clinch their third successive domestic title.
Liverpool are level on points with United at the top of the table, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s side now have two games in hand over their nearest title rivals, the first of which was yesterday, when they were to host Portsmouth.
Liverpool will be kicking themselves for failing to see off Arsenal in one of the most thrilling matches Anfield has witnessed in many a season.
Arshavin sent the visitors into the lead at half-time against the run of play before two goals in six minutes at the start of the second half from Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun put Liverpool in command. But Arshavin capped a fine display with goals in the 66th and 69th minutes before Torres made it 3-3. Still the drama was not over. After Arshavin had bagged his fourth goal in the final minute, Benayoun leveled in the dying moments.
Both Liverpool and Arsenal were hampered by injuries to key players. The hosts were once again without 21-goal Steven Gerrard while Arsenal were also handicapped by the absence of Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor, who have scored 33 times between them this term.
With Theo Walcott also on the bench, there was a suggestion that the Premier League was no longer Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger priority.
After all, Wenger and his players have a date with another team that play in red in the Champions League semi-final next Wednesday.
Yet it is safe to assume the Arsenal manager will demand a better start from his team at United next week than they made at Anfield.
Their Champions League ambitions ended for another season a week earlier by Chelsea, Liverpool were entirely focused on the pursuit of their first title for 19 years.
Benitez had demanded six wins from the remaining six games and his players certainly looked up to the challenge as Lukasz Fabianski denied Torres and Albert Riera inside the opening 10 minutes.
Dirk Kuyt was next to capitalize on Arsenal’s dithering defense as he teed-up Benayoun, only for Fabianksi to rush off his line and snuff out the danger.
In front of co-owner Tom Hicks, Liverpool continued to press with Torres looking particularly threatening. Javier Mascherano flashed a 14th minute effort narrowly wide before Arsenal’s stand-in keeper produced the save of the half to deny Torres his 15th goal of the season, the Polish stopper using his finger-tips to deflect the ball over the bar.
Liverpool were still in the ascendancy, Torres again frustrated by the magnificent Fabianski from long range before Daniel Agger had a glancing header cleared off the line by Samir Nasri.
Not since Tim Cahill scored back in January has an opposition player found the net in the Premier League at Anfield but that ended in the 36th minute after the usually reliable Mascherano conceded possession.
That allowed Nasri to provide a delightful pass for Cesc Fabregas and he cut the ball back for Arshavin to finish off the underside of the bar.