The Best Matches Ever Part 8
I remarked earlier in this series that Cup football is impossible to discount when mining the archives for extraordinary or breathtaking games. But the League Cup would likely not figure in that spectrum for Gooners' of my age or younger. the 87 Final and Semi Final versus Spurs were before my time and while I the League Cup Final in 1993 was the first time I ever saw the Arsenal pick up silverware in person, the competiton has been something of a sideshow in the Wenger era. Though the opportunity to appreciate Wenger's rich goldmine of young talent is nigh unmissable, the same intensity is not usually present at these games. However, eleven months ago at Anfield, we witnessed something truly unique and bizarre, somehting none of us expected. That's right, Julio Baptista performed in an Arsenal shirt!
Without wishing to sound pompous (I'm quite aware that I fail this criteria more often than not), this fixture may mean more to those of us who attended because of the tumultuous context! The match had been scheduled for four days before Christmas. So I dutifully took a half day off of work to trundle up to Anfield. As we plodded up the motorway, a dense fog began to fall. Quite literally, as we parked the coach at Stanley Park, we were informed that the match had been called off. Speaking to some Liverpool fans who had already entered the ground, there was a sense of bemusement, they proclaimed that the visibility inside Anfield was absolutely fine and saw no reason why the game should be postponed. So the travelling contingent were left to toddle off home, this particular supporter arriving back at work the next morning with no sleep. So it was with no little grudging that I undertook the journey again three weeks later. Having given Liverpool a spanking at Anfield in the F.A Cup three days earlier, few expected a shadow Arsenal side to do anything other than lose resoundingly. Personally, I just wanted to get in and out Anfield and get home as quickly as possible! Pre kick off the away fans were singing, '3-1 in the proper cup!' Seemingly an early admission to the inevitability of defeat. A ready made excuse as it were.
But Liverpool were unsure of themselves early on and Arsenal capitalised. Kolo Toure punted a long ball forward, which Jeremie Aliadiere latched onto and beat the hapless Jerzy Dudek at the second attempt. But the respite was brief, four minutes later, Almunia pushed out Aurelio's low free kick, Riise played it back into the box and Robbie Fowler nonchalantly flicked home an equaliser from close range. The expected onslaught from the home side never materialised and with Alex Song and Cesc Fabregas easily containing Stevie Me, Arsenal reassumed their lead. The Gunners' won a free kick twenty five yards from goal, and Julio Baptista summoned up all of his Brazilian genetics to bend home a beautiful curling shot. Liverpool went from entrapy to despair. A nasty laceration to Mark Gonzalez had necessitated a long stoppage time period at the end of the half, the Gunners' would use the stolen minutes to finish the game. Denilson's corner brushed the peroxide quiff of Sami Hyypia and rebounded into the net via Alex Song's dumbstruck arm. With the home side reeling, Arsenal pressed home their advantage further, Aliadiere and Baptista played a gorgeous one two on the edge of the area and Jeremei's low cross found the Beast unmarked to roll into an empty net. The sense of shock around Anfield was palpable as the half time whistle sounded. Were our reserves really 4-1 up at Anfield at half time?!
Just four minutes into the second half, the Gunners' had a chance to increase the gulf further still, when Paletta tripped Aliadiere in the box. Up stepped Baptista to complete his hat trick, but Dudek beat out his weak spot kick. C'est la vie, we can't be too greedy. 5-1 at Anfield is stretching it a bit is it? I mean, that's just never gonna happe.....hang on. Aliadiere receives the ball on the left, pulling Hyypia out of position, dribbles in field and releases Baptista, who drives home a low piledriver from twenty five yards for 5-1. Utter disbelief in the Anfield Road stand. The choir struck up an impressive cabaret, 'fortress Anfield!' we mocked. 'Feed the Beast and he will score.' And, stretching the realms of truth slightly further, '5-1 to the under 12s.' Liverpool huffed and puffed and got back into the game via a Hyypia header and a Gerrard volley, as the Mickeys briefly threatened to rally. But the air was relieved from their tyres with nine minutes left, Hoyte pumped the ball aimlessly down the right touchline. But Aliadiere, such was his form that night, latched onto the 'pass', easily beat the forlorn Paletta before putting the ball on a plate for the Beast to hungrily gobble up for 6-3.
'Have you ever seen children play like this?' was a chant a friend and I memorably tried, and failed, to get off the ground. But the camaraderie in the away end was such that, if it was working for Baptista, then we were all game for a pot shot or two! Football is so addictive because it is unpredictable, euphoric, horrific and unfathomable all at the same time. But occasionally, very occasionally, it is just plain bizarre! Had the game taken place in December as intended, we might well have tumbled limply out of the competition. So with the technicolour specs of retrospect, I was quite happy with fate's queer intervention. They say God never closes a door without opening a window, well on this freezing January night on Merseyside, we positively smashed those windows in with a crow bar fashioned of footballing beauty. This wasn't your typical 'foot in the door' away day cup win, we were breaking the lock and taking the lot.LD.