LONDON (AP)Bukayo Saka has come a long way since missing that decisive penalty in the shootout at the European Championship final.
More than a year later – and with his most important spot kick since – Saka stepped up and coolly converted his effort to give Arsenal a 3-2 win over Liverpool and keep the Gunners at the summit of the Premier League.
It wasn’t quite the last kick of the game this time, but it had the feel of it. Saka had to wait a couple of minutes as players from both sides got involved in a fracas. And the nerves were building.
But he buried it.
”I’ve been practicing all the time. I don’t know what was going on – a few bits of fighting. I don’t know if they were trying to delay or to get into my head. But you know I had what I was going to do in my mind and stuck with it, and happy that it went in.”
Saka has taken – and scored – other penalties since his miss for England in the Euro 2020 final against Italy at Wembley Stadium in July last year.
But it was the significance of Sunday’s penalty that earned him plaudits. After all, it returned Arsenal back into first place above Manchester City.
”Credit to the boy, especially after what happened over a year ago,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta said.
Saka had stepped forward ahead of many other older, more experienced players in the Euro 2020 final to take what proved to be England’s final penalty, which was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma. He received racist abuse over social media in the aftermath but has emerged as one of the best forwards in the Premier League.
”That was a difficult moment, that was a difficult learning curve,” Arteta said. ”The boy didn’t hesitate to continue to take them, under pressure.”
The penalty on Sunday, which came after Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara ran his studs down Gabriel Jesus’ calf, was Saka’s second goal of the match. The England international scored just before halftime to make it 2-1.
The Gunners had a dream start as Gabriel Martinelli scored after 58 seconds but Liverpool grew into the game, with Darwin Nunez equalizing in the 34th minute.
Arsenal restored the team’s lead just before halftime in the fifth minute of added time when Saka tapped in from close range to make it 2-1. But the visitors were back on level terms again in the 53rd when substitute Roberto Firmino latched onto a through ball to score from a tight angle to make it 2-2 with his sixth goal of the season.
But it wasn’t enough for Liverpool to hold on as the team’s poor start to the season continues. Thiago’s challenge on Jesus looked innocuous in real time, but replays showed he clearly made contact with his fellow Brazilian.
After Saka’s penalty, Arsenal had to buckle down as Liverpool threatened yet another equalizer right at the end.
Defenders Ben White and William Saliba jumped into each other’s arms at the final whistle as the crowd at Emirates Stadium erupted into chants of ”We are top of the league.”
Arsenal is in first place with 24 points, a point ahead of City. With the win over Liverpool and last weekend’s victory over fierce rival Tottenham, Arsenal fans are starting to believe this team can go on and win a first league title for the club since 2004.
Liverpool is 14 points off the top in 10th place, putting further pressure on manager Jurgen Klopp as his team has failed to impress this season.
Arteta made the bold choice of picking right-footed Takehiro Tomiyasu instead of Kieran Tierney to play left back to mark Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah. The move paid off, with the Japan defender limiting Salah’s usual mazy runs into the box.
The Egypt international has struggled for form this season, like other Liverpool players. The entire team doesn’t have the same spark as last season when it was fighting for four major trophies. Injuries have played their part, but Klopp will need to find solutions quick as Liverpool languishes in midtable.
Klopp conceded that Liverpool isn’t in the title race.
”We’re in a tough moment and we want to get through this,” he said.
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