Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday April 9 2008
Sometimes you come out of a game just thinking, 'you know, I'd really rather we were thumped 4-0 tonight.' Last night was one of those nights. As we trudged dejectedly out of the Anfield Road End, a guy behind me just shouted, 'Arsenal, you know EXACTLY how to break my heart.' It was hard to waiver fromthat sentiment. I have only seen a short highlights reel on Sky Sports News just now, several people texted me to say it was never a penalty. From my vantage point, some 90 yards away tucked away in the far corner of the Anfield Road End, it looked it. Having seen it again, it looked soft, but I can see why the ref gave it. My gripe is how we allowed ourselves to be in that position. Over the two ties we have played very well. But we led the tie three times, yet were in the ascendancy for only 20 of the 180 minutes. At this lofty level of the game, if you don't learn your lessons you get knocked out. That's what has happened to us.
We tried to begin our evening in the Arkles pub but it was too full, so we retreated to the ground only to remember that they don't serve alcohol inside the ground on European nights (they ignore this rule in every country except England. In fact in Germany, they let you take it in the ground). So I had to settle for a bovril and a hot dog to steady the nerves. The teams came out to the famous 'You'll Never Walk Alone' with both sets of supporters in extremely good voice. For those interested in whether Anfield on a European night lived up to expectation, well no it didn't. The atmosophere was very good, but no better or more intense than when Arsenal played Madrid and Juve at Highbury. Liverpool fans were very loud when they scored and very quiet when we were in front. In other words, it was just like every other European ground would have been for a Champions League Quarter Final.
Arsenal started the brighter, passing and moving with intent. Hleb and Fabregas weaved in and out of space, Diaby was menacing on the left, Eboue looked a half decent right winger for twenty minutes. After 14 minutes, Fabregas and Hleb played a deft one two, before Hleb played through a marauding Diaby, who took one touch and unleashed a powerful shot past Reina. It took a good two seconds for the Arsenal fans to celebrate the goal, we all thought it had hit the side netting. The away side were in complete control, with Liverpool looking very wary. Clichy's cross was nearlymet by Adebayor, but Hyypia impressively headed away. But once again, Arsenal created their own downfall by conceding a soft goal. Its root was somebad decision making from Almunia, with Liverpool pumping the ball long, Gallas had it covered and could have seen it out, but Almunia came racing out and a poor clearance gave Pool a throw in in an advanced position. Aurelio's cross was headed behind by Clichy and fromthe resulting corner, Hyypia lost Senderos and headed Gerrard's delivery in off the post. Where we had been in control, we gave the home side the impetus. Where there is hope, it seems Arsenal are hell bent on bringing despair.
The pattern of the game changed when Mathieu Flamini hobbled off injured to be replaced by Gilberto. Arsenal's battery was flat and we played out the last 15 minutes of the half desperate for half time. Adebayor's constant propensity towards being offside nullified what little attacking threat we could muster. Liverpool began the second period on the front foot, aware that they had to take the game tous. But as the clock ticked over the hour mark, Liverpool began to look nervous, knowing that the later it got in the game, the more damaging another Arsenal goalwould be. But just as Arsenal began to get a foothold again, Gerrard played the ball to Torres, who for the first time over the two legs didn't fall over, he spun Senderos who gave him far too much space to smash the ball into the top corner. Walcott and a heavily strapped van Persie were introduced. I don't recall van Persie touching the ball and given the heavy duty strapping on his thigh, I would venture he was barely mobile. The Gunners showed signs of carving Liverpool open when they kept the ball on the ground. They did just that and provided the gilt edged chance of the tie, Hleb played a slide rule pass through the Pool defence, which I think was intedned for Fabregas,but it reached Adebayor unchallenged in front of goal, but he lost his composure and tippedthe ball wide.
Arsenal looked to have run out of legs and ideas thereafter. The players you rely on in these situations have just played too many games and the size of this squad has hurt us more than anything this year. But from the darkness, came the brightest light. A Liverpool attack broke down and Walcott picked the ball up on the edge of his own box. With Jaguaresque poise, he made like Forrest Gump and ran, riding four challenges, staying on his feet and maintaining his balance as Liverpool looked to foul him. But he would not be denied, carrying the ball seventy yards and eliminating the whole of Liverpool's rearguard before squaring for Adebayor to convert a tap in. With only four minutes left it looked to be the killer blow. Delirium took hold of the away end, I have a bit of a fat lip which suggests I copped one in the chops from the sea of flailing limbs. It was rather poignant that one the way to the match on the Travel Club coach, we had been treated to a DVD retrospective on the career of Thierry Henry. In the same way Henry had pranced through Liverpool's backline to deliver us the title in 2004, Walcott looked to have graced the highest stage with the most imperious quality.
But before we could stretch our vocal chords to appraise the apotheosis of the piece, familiar foes in the shape of defensive naivety and lady luck intervened. As we had done in the first leg, when we should have been at our most inpenetrable, we were at our most vulnerable. Straight from centre, Babel received the ball and astoundingly was given space to run into and Toure's clumsy challenge saw the referee award a penalty. It was soft, but we should never have allowed Babel into the penalty area staright from kick off. We lost our heads yet again, and at this level, if you keep making the same mistakes you'll keep getting the same punishment. Where he bottled it in Istanbul, Stevie Me chose to step up this time and hammer the penalty into the top corner with his first kick of the game. An absolute sickener. Arsenal got a free kick in the last minute, but as Cesc pumped it forwards, Liverpool cleared and the fresh Ryan Babel out paced a valiant Fabregas to deliver the final blow. Theo had been robbed of a deserved moment. After all the crap that kid has put up with over the last two years, an intervention as breath taking as that deserved more. The next stage for him is to be able to produce over 90 minutes. I would imagine he will get that chance on Sunday.
As the final whistle sounded, true to form, all the Arsenal players trudged off with only Fabregas, Walcott and Gallas acknowledging the away support. It's a constant pattern now and I know the players are disappointed, but so are we and our support was constant. Like Theo, we deserved more from our team than that. The Liverpool fans over in the West Stand and the travelling Gooners applauded one another warmly, which is an indication for a mutual respect that I think runs right between our two clubs. From players, to staff, to supporters and it was a gesture of class from Liverpool fans who might easily have rubbed our noses in it. A young lad of about eight stood crying as we filed out, 'it gets easier as you get older' I told him. Of course, I lied. We trudged out of the ground left to piece together the crumbling remains of a season that promised so much. Mistakes have been made, but its hard not to get a persecution complex about the things that have gone against us, and it's made every dropped point and every conceded goal that little bit harder to swallow. Every blow of the referee's whistle seems to lead to as much bitterness as a lemon flavoured suppository.
I fear for Sunday, I really do. There's nothing in the tank for a lot of players now and legs get heavier after a mental blow such as that. Unfortunately, we don't have the players to bring in as replacements. That's a moan I've already had and don't have the energy or the inlcination to repeat. Our younger players will learn fromthe experience, I hope the manager rectifies the obvious deficiencies as I am sure he will. While most of us will feel despondant this morning, we have to remember how far this side has come from last season and these disappointments will only teach them and fill them with the desire to insulate themselves from such despair again. There is an old saying that goes, 'Good judgement comes from experience, experience comes from bad judgement.'LD.
Date:Wednesday April 9 2008
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