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Arsenal blow title race wide open as Mikel Arteta gets all the big calls right

For the first time in a decade, the Premier League title race is shaping up to be a three-way fight.

Arsenal moved to within two points of leaders Liverpool with a 3-1 win over them which was both thoroughly-deserved and gifted by visiting goalkeeper Alisson, who was twice at fault for second-half goals.

Wild celebrations from Mikel Arteta, his players and the home supporters underscored what the result means to Arsenal, even if pundit Gary Neville described the scenes as “immature” and suggested the Gunners were above all “relieved” not to have fallen eight points off the pace.

True, a defeat would have left Arsenal’s title hopes hanging by a thread and Arteta’s side potentially needing to do to both Liverpool and Manchester City what the champions did to them last season by overhauling an eight-point deficit to top the pile. As it is, Arsenal are bang in the mix of a battle which is tough to call.

“We are there, that’s for sure,” said Arteta. “We want to continue to be there.”

In the last nine seasons, the top-flight has either been won by a runaway champion — think Liverpool in 2020 and City the following year — or come down to a head-to-head, as in the last two campaigns.

Not since 2013-14, when both Liverpool and Chelsea finished within four points of City can the League claim to have had a genuine three-way contest.

Mikel Arteta took some risks against Liverpool - and they paid off handsomely (PA)
Mikel Arteta took some risks against Liverpool - and they paid off handsomely (PA)

Perhaps Aston Villa, just five points from the summit, should not be discounted just yet, while Tottenham’s Ange Postecoglou has insisted his side are in the conversation, although neither club feels ready to be champions, particularly faced with this kind of competition.

The upshot of Sunday's result, however, is that the title is now back in City’s hands, even if it is too early to be talking in those terms.

Win their two games in hand, starting at Brentford on Monday night, and Pep Guardiola’s side will go top, and it will not be lost on Arteta or Jurgen Klopp that talk of a close title race could be rendered academic if City produce the kind of winning sequence they are capable of.

“If you want to find a specialist champion in England, I’m probably not the right person to ask because most of the time we finish second,” Klopp said wryly.

The result probably suited City, although Arsenal and Liverpool look capable of pushing them the distance or even forcing Guardiola’s side out of the top two for the first time since 2017. City host Arsenal on March 9 and travel to Anfield later in the month in two season-defining games.

For Arsenal, this was a landmark result, perhaps even more significant than their home win over City in October, as they inflicted only a second League defeat on Liverpool this season. The hosts pressed with the intensity Klopp has come to expect from his own winning machines and were full of poise and menace in the final third.

Bukayo Saka — who hobbled off in the second half but is expected to be fine — fired Arsenal in front, before Gabriel Martinelli, who was outstanding, and Leandro Trossard benefitted from Alisson errors to score after the break.

The most frequent question of Arsenal in high-pressure situations has been of their mentality, and they might have been rocked back by Liverpool’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time — a farcical own goal by Gabriel which ensured the Reds went in level despite not having a shot on target.

"For Arsenal, this was a landmark result, perhaps even more significant than their home win over Manchester City in October"

“That really affected us,” Arteta said. “The dressing room was touched at half time. I could sense it. But you can’t feel sorry for yourself against this team.”

Klopp was missing more key players, including Mohamed Salah, and did not appear overly deflated by an off-day, ultimately defined by two bad mistakes.

Arteta, though, got the big calls right. Kai Havertz, deployed as a false nine in the absence of Gabriel Jesus, was a constant nuisance and Ibrahima Konate’s late red card was the result of two bookings for grappling with the German.

Jorginho, starting for the first time since January 7, was outstanding alongside Declan Rice at the base of midfield, Arteta afterwards saying the Italian was the man of the match. And Martinelli was at his electrifying best.

The Premier League trophy was pitchside before kick-off — a very visual reminder of what was at stake for the teams. If Arsenal had lost, they could probably have kissed goodbye to the trophy, but a big win should leave them full of confidence they can be the ones to get their hands on it come May.