Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Thursday April 3 2008
A colossal trilogy between old adversaries is enough to have anybody with a pulse salivating with anticipation. But enough about the Robocop films, it was Champions League night at the Grove in an all Premiership encounter. Pre match I had dismissed Liverpool`s European prowess as irrelevant as this essentially was not a European match, but a two legged tie between very evenly matched opponents very familiar with one another. Liverpool`s expertise against continental sides is not to be dismissed, but we are no continental side and I always felt we would have something akin to two Premiership games with the variable of away goals thrown in for good measure. As the match kicked off to a booming chorus of "Rocky Rocastle", it was noticeable that there were many empty seats in the away enclosure. Word had circulated in the pub before the game that another Liverpool forgery scam had seen many Liverpool fans with genuine tickets in danger of not being able to see the game, as had happened in Athens at last year`s Final. Around midway through the first half the empty block of seats filled, so I assume order was restored. But I look forward to seeing who the Scousers will blame for this one; Kofi Anan has been keeping a low profile of late. Why not blame him?
The match began quite cagily as one would expect, with Arsenal gradually manoeuvring onto the front foot after fifteen minutes. Flamini lifted a ball over the top of the Liverpool defence and van Persie got too heavy a connection on it and spooned a difficult chance over the bar. Arsenal were warming up and van Persie received Hleb`s pass on the edge of the box and fired it low with his left foot, only for Reina to tip around the post. Arsenal were putting three men on Reina for corners, identifying his tendency to flap under pressure as hubris. It paid off after 23 minutes, van Persie swung in a left footed corner, Adebayor drifted away from the crowded goal line and hung superbly in the air to power a header past Reina and give Arsenal a precious lead and, in turn, give Adebayor a precious fillip of confidence.
Having absorbed the euphoria of the goal, myself, Jon and Trev all made the same signal, time to calm it down and keep it tight. This was not a Premiership encounter and our priority should have been not to concede before we think about building on our lead. Sadly, the players did not adopt that forte, and were instantly punished. Flamini tried to nick the ball away from Alonso and the ball ricocheted to the lurking Gerrard. He easily swanned past Eboue and Toure, the latter afraid to make a challenge in the box lest the turf happy Gerrard go down, and Stevie Me put in a low cross which Kuyt bundled home. It may not have made much difference, but why oh why Clichy attempted to clear from the goal line on his left foot from that angle I have no idea. Had he beaten Kuyt to the ball, he could only have spooned it into the net on his left, the only chance he had of clearing the ball was with his right foot. If you`re so one footed that you would rather score an own goal than use your other foot, you need to work on it on the training ground. A lot of these errors are beginning to creep into Clichy`s play and I`d put that down to mental fatigue. That said, the defending for the goal was poor all round, when we should have been at our most resolute, we were at our most vulnerable. The first half petered out for us thereafter, heads notably dropped.
So it was left to Wenger to lift his troops with another rousing team talk. Walcott replaced van Persie at half time who apparently had another muscle injury. I worry about RvP, I really do. Much like Rosicky, he is a top player, but if we cannot muster more than five games from him on the spin, we have to question his value to us in the long term. Let`s hope it`s just bad luck and nothing terminal. Liverpool forced an early opportunity to build a virtually unassailable advantage, when Skrtel knocked down Gerrard`s corner at the back post towards Kuyt and his close range shot was gathered impressively by Almunia amidst a sea of bodies. The away side ceased to be an attacking force thereafter, a hungry looking Walcott was the catalyst for a second half spent camped in Liverpool`s half, with the Gunners still looking laboured, Walcott cut in from the left and unleashed an exorset which flew inches past Reina`s left hand post. Crowd and players alike were mutually spurred on and the Gunners laid siege, with Liverpool comfortable with looking neat and compact. Alex Hleb, as he so often does, found space in the channel and cut the ball across goal, but Eboue`s composure deserted him and his weak effort was cleared off the line by Skrtel. Seriously, is there a player who panics more in front of goal than Eboue?
Arsenal could smell Scouse blood and went for the jugular, Eboue was replaced by Bendtner. Hleb picked his way through a series of challenges before being dragged back by Kuyt in the area. The referee amazingly did not give one of the clearer penalties you are likely to see in Europe this year. It seems to have gone like that for us recently, but it`s no use complaining about it, we`ll undoubtedly get a few dodgy ones to even things out. Probably during our pre season tour of Austria when we`re 7-0 up against Muffburger. Fate was to lift its skirt invitingly towards us once more only to withdraw the goods. Hleb, by now a constant threat on the left, wriggled to the by line, his cross was palmed away by Reina, only as far as Fabregas, who prodded goalwards, but Bendtner just could not get out of the way quickly enough and ended up unwittingly blocking the ball on its glorious path to goal. The resulting offside flag rubbed salt into the stigmata. Arsenal looked bereft of inspiration after that; exasperated and quiescent to the fact that it wasn`t our night. Liverpool got a smash and grab away goal and defended it resolutely. They were a compact unit and executed the archetypal away European performance. But I am not too down hearted about the result; I back us to score at Anfield as I would back us to score anywhere. The "special atmosphere" of Anfield is nothing but an over hyped media fed myth and the players have played there often enough to know that. Ostensibly, what we have is a one off game, which we have to go and win. We can be calm and play our game just as we would in the Premiership. It won`t be easy and will likely be another very tight affair; my own prediction is that this could go all the way to penalties. If we score first next week, the tie completely tips in our favour. It`s important to be defensively resolute and I think we have to drop Toure in truth; the guy just could not get up and down the pitch, which after four years of continuous football is understandable. We need strong heads and strong legs, because if the tie is still in the balance going into the last twenty minutes, you always fancy us to score. A good win on Saturday would set us up very nicely.LD.
Date:Thursday April 3 2008
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