This feature is part of Virtuoso
The Arsenal career of Nicklas Bendtner is a particularly foggy quagmire. Breaking on to the scene with the winner in a north London derby, he appeared to display genuine promise as well as the potential to lead the Arsenal line for years to come. It wasn’t long after that spectacular debut, however, that the Dane began to show his true colours in a series of bizarre situations. If one were to believe all these, then the prospect of him being involved in a game where a single player scored four goals isn’t at all far-fetched.
During the 2008/09 season, Bendtner found himself behind Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin van Persie in the striker pecking order at the Emirates. However, with Van Persie picking up a knock and Adebayor also missing, the night of 29 April 2009 saw Bendtner in a role he believed he was more than ready for; leading the line for Arsenal Football Club.
As it would transpire, a disallowed goal aside, Bendtner wouldn’t demonstrate his scoring credentials on this evening in Liverpool. Instead that honour would go to Andrey Arshavin, a man whom the Dane somewhat dismissed upon his signing some three months earlier. “I’ve never seen him play. I’ve got no idea what sort of player he is. I did not watch Euro 2008.”
Arriving at Arsenal to much fanfare in February 2009, with his move having been delayed by paperwork issues, Arshavin was the Gunners’ then-record signing for £15m. The previous summer he had starred at the Euros for Russia, alongside helping his club side Zenit Saint Petersburg to the 2008 UEFA Cup and subsequent 2-1 UEFA Super Cup victory of Manchester United in Monaco.
Going into the Liverpool match, the Russian had assisted Arsenal in overturning an eight-point deficit with Aston Villa to firmly secure a spot in the Champions League places. The hosts had enjoyed a fine campaign themselves, driven by the peak years of partnership between Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Perhaps crucially, the latter was to be missing through injury for what was a must-win game for Liverpool’s flagging title hopes. In Gerrard’s absence, it was over to the one of those left in the two squads to be the star man.
Early on it appeared as if this may well be Łukasz Fabiański, with the Polish goalkeeper making a string of saves to keep out Torres, Yossi Benayoun and Gerrard’s replacement, Albert Riera. Much of Arsenal’s play in this opening half-hour was restricted to the odd counter-attack, with Arshavin himself commenting afterwards “until I scored the first goal you never saw me.”
The strike in question came through two of Arsenal’s most creative forces, namely Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri. Five minutes after clearing Daniel Agger’s header off the line, Nasri robbed Javier Mascherano before flicking round for Fabregas to square onto the edge of the six-yard box. Jamie Carragher slipped and nipping in was Arshavin, with his first-time strike crashing in off the crossbar. The Russian wheeled away in celebration, finger pressed against lips as the Kop fell silent — not for the first time.
The goal itself did little to impact upon the pattern of the game, with Benayoun almost equalising immediately after the restart. Arsenal were still restricted to very little play and despite going into half-time with the lead, 10 minutes after the restart, they were behind.
In response, Arsène Wenger substituted Denílson for the fresh legs of Theo Walcott. A few minutes later the switch paid off, with the added attacking impetus leading to Arshavin dispossessing Álvaro Arbeloa on the edge of the box. He caught the resulting shot perfectly on his outstep, with the ball nestling into the bottom corner.
It had been 14 years since an opposition player had scored a Premier League hat-trick at Anfield. The honourable Peter Ndlovu was about to be joined by Arshavin. Nasri’s cross from the left was poorly cleared by Fábio Aurélio, with the Russian taking one touch before firing past Reina again, this time beating the Spaniard for pace. Leaving the disbelieving goalkeeper lying on his back, there was similar bewilderment in Arshavin’s celebration. He paused for a second before going over to the travelling supporters, three fingers aloft, with a look of sheer amazement etched on his face.
It is fair to describe Arshavin’s exploits as merely one aspect, rather than the overriding one, of what was a quite incredible game of football. Little over three minutes elapsed before Liverpool equalised once again, with Torres once again the source. A good delivery from Riera was necessary but the first touch from the striker, who killed the ball dead and opened up a yard of space on Mikaël Silvestre, was simply sublime. Fabiański got a hand to it but the curling strike was just too accurate for the young Pole to keep out.
Given how the title picture looked at this point, with a draw only sufficient to edge Liverpool ahead of Manchester United on goal difference, with their bitter rivals having two games in hand, the home side went all out. Torres was denied his hat-trick by a goal-line clearance from Kieran Gibbs, whilst Carragher also went close from distance.
To find the centre-half in such a position meant there were gaps to be exploited at the back and who better to do this than Theo Walcott. Breaking from a corner, the substitute practically ran the length of the pitch, as Liverpool scrambled desperately to get back. He appeared alone but suddenly a teammate in yellow joined him; furiously storming through the centre circle in support.
Walcott gladly spotted the run and slid the ball into his feet. Arshavin took one touch, pulled back his left foot, and again hit the target. Cue pandemonium in the away end, alongside another euphoric and shocked celebration from the Russian. This positivity doesn’t evaporate upon the final whistle, sounded only after Benayoun had equalised again, deep into injury-time. Asked to sum up the Russian’s performance, Wenger bluntly stated, “I didn’t expect him to do that.”
In terms of Arshavin’s legacy at Arsenal, it could be argued this game set himself unrealistically high standards. The stark contrast between his impact here and during the remainder of his two-and-a-half years in London makes this the perfect example of a virtuoso performance. Arshavin never quite replicated that magical performance at Anfield but, for those privileged enough to be watching that night, that single game was enough.
By James Kelly @jkell403
Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp