LIVERPOOL (AFP) – Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers felt his players demonstrated the character necessary to revitalise their challenge for a top-four Premier League finish in their last-gasp 2-2 draw with Arsenal.
After Philippe Coutinho’s opener was swiftly cancelled out by Mathieu Debuchy in first-half stoppage time at Anfield on Sunday, Olivier Giroud struck in the 64th minute to set Arsenal up for an opportunistic victory.
But having earlier required treatment for a head wound inflicted by Giroud that left him with a bandaged head and led to nine minutes of injury time, Martin Skrtel claimed an equaliser with an emphatic 97th-minute header in front of the Kop.
The point was the least Liverpool deserved after restricting Arsenal to a 36 per cent share of possession – their worst performance in that domain since passing statistics began to be compiled in 2003.
And although Liverpool trail leaders Chelsea by 17 points and lie nine points adrift of the Champions League places, Rodgers is convinced that last season’s runners-up are on the right track.
Asked if Liverpool could sustain a challenge for a top-four finish, he told reporters: “Yes, absolutely.
“It was always going to be a big challenge. Of course we’ve got to make up points over the next part of the season, but we have shown this is a group that can go on a run of games (wins).
“In the second half of last season we went on a run of 11 games and if we can put a run of games together, that can very quickly move you up.
“The most important thing is the confidence and the ability in the team. You bring (injured striker Daniel) Sturridge back in January, then you get back to being that team we have been in the last few years.
“There’s a bit of work to do, but at least we’re moving in the right direction again, which is what we want.”
Rodgers was pleased with the “intensity” and “arrogance with the ball” Liverpool showed, but he was less complimentary about his side’s defending.
Citing the build-up to Debuchy’s goal, when the hosts were beaten in the air three times after Alexis Sanchez curled a free-kick into the box, he said: “A lot of the goals we give away are poor goals.
“I didn’t think it should have been a free-kick. I think Sanchez has dived once he realised he wasn’t getting the ball, and the referee fell for it.
“But when it comes in, we lose three one-v-one headers in the box. We have to be better at that. That’s not about organisation. That’s about winning the duel.”
Rodgers said he had “no complaints” about the injury-time dismissal of substitute Fabio Borini, who collected yellow cards for dissent and a high boot against Santi Cazorla.
He also paid tribute to Slovakian centre-back Skrtel, who stayed on to score the winner despite having been left with an ugly gash on the back of his head after Giroud unintentionally caught him with his studs.
“He’s a real warrior, Martin,” said the Northern Irishman, whose side registered 27 attempts on goal. “He showed great character and determination to stay on.”
Arsenal had been destroyed 5-1 on their previous visit to Anfield in February, when they conceded four times in the first 20 minutes, and beaten manager Arsene Wenger suggested the memory had played on his players’ minds.
Asked to explain a sluggish first-half display, Wenger cited “tactical and psychological reasons” and explained: “Maybe (there were) bad memories from last year. Some players were not at their best. I think we played with the handbrake too much in the first half.”
He added: “Overall it’s a fair result, but it’s also a frustrating result for us because they came back at a moment in the game when we had plenty of defenders on the pitch.
“Today (Sunday) was frustrating because they came back to 2-2. But overall it’s not the most frustrating day of the season.”