It was a moment to leave the hearts of Arsenal supporters lodged firmly in their throats.
Their side had contributed plenty to a thrilling match against Liverpool, the kind where both teams are technically accomplished and comfortable in their own skins.
Despite ceding the advantage handed to them by Gabriel’s early Kop-silencing header, Arsenal showed the resilience of a sturdy flood barrier as relentless waves of Liverpool attacks rained down on them.
Rice personified their effort. In a match where both sets of players refuelled themselves with Jagerbombs at two-minute intervals, it often felt like the England midfielder was playing three or four positions simultaneously.
As well as shielding the Arsenal defence, the £105million signing from West Ham was tasked with supporting Oleksandr Zinchenko at left-back, sweeping up stray passes and carrying the ball towards its destination like a beleaguered Amazon Prime driver.
Arsenal’s reliance on Rice became horrifyingly apparent when Liverpool scrambled the ball clear from a corner and five of their players bore down on the Gunners goal.
Peeping over the parapet, like an anxious German solider at Thiepval in July 1916, Rice was tasked with stopping a stubborn wave of attack on his lonesome.
Managing to both backpedal in the face of Mohamed Salah and cover three men at once, the England midfielder’s aura was preventing Arsenal from crumbling like a piece of wet tissue paper.
As Salah slipped the ball to Trent Alexander-Arnold, Rice charged towards his opponent with scant regard for his well-being.
Spooked by his persistence, Alexander-Arnold’s shot lacked his usual composure. The Kop howled helplessly as one as it lashed against the crossbar.
Arsenal had survived solely thanks to Rice.
I wonder what was going through Declan Rice’s mind here 😭pic.twitter.com/JstaUpYQb1
— Tommy timberlake (@Tommytimberlak3) December 23, 2023
“It was an unbelievable game of football,” Arteta said afterwards. “One of the most intense and hectic games that I have witnessed in this League in 20 years.
“The quality and the intention of both teams, it was superb to watch it and witness a team with our boys to play at that level, to have the courage and belief to play at that level like we have done here. I think my players deserve big, big credit.
“We should have done better from many situations that we had in the final third because we generated a lot, and that’s a little bit the regret.
“But they had some moments at the other end. Especially the one where they went through and we had a miscommunication at the edge of their box and that’s a big quality of theirs. We were lucky not to concede the goal.”
Arsenal’s title charge faded last season after they drew 2-2 at Anfield in April, with the Gunners blowing a two-goal lead.
This time, however, they left with a spring in their step and Arteta praised the way they handled the emotion of the game.
“It was a very different game to last year but what they did today on this pitch and in an atmosphere they created which was something else,” he said.
“The maturity and courage that we showed we should be really proud of our players.
Rice was picked specifically for praise by Arsenal legend Ian Wright after the 1-1 draw that confirmed their place on top of the Premier League tree for Christmas.
“I thought he was magnificent,” Wright said. “Anything you looked in this game when we were attacking or defending. It was Declan Rice who was the main guy.
“I think it’s a magnificent signing. I feel he is one of the main reasons why we can go to Anfield with confidence.”
It’s safe to say that Arsenal would have lost this game with a less adaptable, less high‑grade central midfielder than Rice in that role.
And his brave one-man defence in the trenches of Anfield deserves to be studied by military historians for decades to come.
By Michael Lee