|Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey and Liverpool's Jordan|
Henderson battle for the ball at the Emirates yesterday
Arsenal moved five points clear at the top of the table last night. This fact should make their credibility as title challengers self-evident. But this is no normal season. They met Liverpool at the Emirates yesterday with the implicit understanding that, despite occupying the top two places by the time the game began, one would be dismissed as genuine contenders with a defeat.
"It was vital to win today," Arsene Wenger said. "If we had not won today people would say Arsenal cannot win the big games." Arsenal triumphed thanks to goals from Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey, who scored his 10th of the season and can, at this stage, probably be considered a phenomenon.
Their victory was a triumph for Wenger's promotion of his team ethic. Mikel Arteta was outstanding, dominating through intelligence and precision against a Liverpool side that lacked those qualities.
Liverpool's disjointed performance may be seen as more significant given time. Brendan Rodgers has displayed a welcome pragmatism this season, shaping a side that can win when playing badly but the structural weaknesses, especially in midfield, were exposed against an Arsenal side with abundant talent in that area.
Liverpool will challenge for the top four this season but it will be primarily because Rodgers has been smart enough to keep Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together as strikers so they can dominate weaker teams. Against the best sides, their midfield failings are glaring.
"We've got a long, long way to go," Rodgers admitted afterwards. "In modern football if you win a game, everyone is looking at you. Tonight we weren't quite firing. People will probably be a bit more realistic after this."
After a bright Liverpool start when Jordan Henderson should have scored, Arsenal found that they could get through the centre of Liverpool's midfield and defence. Their slick passing bewildered the clumsier feet of Lucas and Steven Gerrard and the baffled Liverpool defence.
There had been much anxiety among Liverpool fans when Jon Flanagan was named as one of their five defenders, with Glen Johnson out with illness that saw him sent to hospital just before kick-off.
Yet he was the least of their problems – Liverpool looked like they could do with a few more in defence as Cazorla and Mesut Ozil drifted in front of them.
Liverpool's strength was in attack as they tried to release Suarez and Sturridge, who gave glimpses of what they could do, but they were men apart in every sense as they found themselves increasingly distant from the rest of the team.