Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday April 22 2009
Games at Anfield always have a special feel to them. There is a palpable mutual respect between the two clubs that engenders this rivalry; the matches are usually of a good vintage too. Last night was no exception. We departed the hot, dry North London sunshine and headed North into a balmy Merseyside evening. It was notable in the pre match warm up that Lukasz Fabianski and Vito Mannone were testing the run of the ball on the plush Anfield surface. Fabianski is a keeper that likes to commit himself and whilst this sweeper role has paid dividends on the bowls green turf at the Grove, he has found himself wanting on the stickier, stodgier pitches at Wigan and the laughable surface at Wembley. It`s a good demonstration of awareness from our young keeper as Mannone continually kicked long balls at him along the floor and invited him to come rushing out for them. Pre match also contained a touching tribute to a legend of both clubs, Ray Kennedy, in order to raise awareness of his Ray of Hope charity which aims to fund research for combating Parkinson`s Disease. The Kop End and the Anfield Road End were given cards to hold up, the Kop spelling out a striking number 5 mosaic. Having been underneath the cards in the away section, I actually do not know what they spelled out, but I`m imagining it was a number 10?
The game got underway with Liverpool in much more dire need of points than Arsenal, but with the Gunners looking to shake off the cobwebs of a stinging F.A. Cup Semi Final defeat to Chelsea. The home side were quicker out of the traps, the Gunners backline immediately trembled in the presence of Torres, when he was allowed to squeeze his way between Toure and Sagna, who stood off him like starry eyed teenage girls at a Westlife gig and allowed him to get a low shot in on goal after three minutes which was well held by Fabianski. The young keeper, who attracted his fair share of criticism on Saturday, was soon called into action again. Kuyt, who was filling the Steven Gerrard role in the first half, played a clever reverse ball to the ever busy Benayoun, but Fabianski rushed out to his feet in Wilson-esque style to block, he then smothered Arbeloa`s follow up. The young Pole was again on the receiving end of the plaudits from the away enclosure when he smartly tipped Torres` first time shot over the bar, a fantastic reflex stop and already examples of his mental strength as well as his agility were coming to the fore. It took the Gunners around half an hour to create their first opportunity of note; Bendtner played a neat ball to the overlapping Gibbs, his cross was only half cleared by Agger, the ball fell invitingly to Fabregas who could only screw his volley wide. Agger`s poor clearance would set the standard for a string of awful, awful defensive clearances that lead to a good majority of the goals. Agger`s header at the other end from a Benayoun corner was more convincing as it looked destined for the top corner until Samir Nasri headed it off the line. Arsenal were holding onto the cliff edge by their fingernails.
So it was with no little surprise that the away side took the lead against the run of play. The usually tenacious Mascherano was dispossessed by Fabregas on the edge of the area, Nasri took the ball into his stride before playing a cute ball to Fabregas on the by-line and the young Spaniard was the picture of sangfroid when he looked up and picked out Andrey Arshavin who lashed the ball in off the underside of the bar. It was Arshavin`s first contribution of note other than to leave his left back Kieran Gibbs woefully exposed as Arbeloa and Benayoun doubled up on him time and again. As the Wigan game showed, Arshavin appears to have that touch of class meaning he can assume the role of passenger for large segments of a game before producing a moment of class. Liverpool were angered by the perceived injustice as Fabianski was again forced into a commanding save from Benayoun on his near post. Benayoun created more problems for us last night than I think Steven Gerrard ever has. We somehow survived to disembark to the dressing rooms a goal ahead at half time as Ray Kennedy came onto the pitch to be met with a rapturous applause.
Arsenal would have known what to expect at the beginning of the second half, it was important to baton down the hatches for the first ten minutes of the half at least. However, without the calming presence of Gallas, the Gunners produced a second half defensive display that my work football team would have been embarrassed by. Within two minutes of the restart, roared on by the Kop, Liverpool restored parity. Kuyt swapped over to the right with Benayoun drifting central, Kuyt`s cross from the right was too deep, yet Sagna appallingly miscued and fired the ball straight back at the Golden retriever, he put in a better cross this time, Silvestre and Toure did not think marking the league`s most lethal marksman in the penalty area was a job worth doing and Torres guided a header into Fabianski`s bottom corner. We were well and truly pinned back into our own area as the Alamo ensued with the Reds overpowering us convincingly. Silvestre played his 1,309th under hit back pass of the evening, causing Fabianski to rush his clearance to Gibbs, who was bullied out of possession by Dirk Kuyt. His cross found its way to the back post where Yossi Benayoun was on hand to squeeze the ball just over the line. A goal he richly deserved on the night and the expectation in the Anfield Road End was that a thorough shoeing was imminent, through a combination of Liverpool`s lively triumvirate of attacking Adonis`s and the Gunners powder puff backline who managed to put in about as much resistance as Danielle Lloyd does to Premiership footballers. But amidst the gloom a chink of light flickered our hopes once more, as Andrey Arshavin dispossessed Arbeloa, who seemed to be auditioning for a transfer to Arsenal after refusing to simply conduct a simple clearance, Arshavin wrested the ball under his control and positively walloped it past Reina and into the far corner. For the second time of the evening, Arsenal had their get out of hail free card in the size and shape of a diminutive Soviet power house.
That get out of jail free card soon morphed into a "dig a frigging great tunnel under your cell and sneak out of this Liverpuddlian bastille laughing like a maniac with yer cock in your hand" card when Walcott`s cross saw a continuation in the theme of worst defensive clearances ever, Aurelio could only stab the ball as far as Arshavin who calmly collected himself and stabbed the ball past Reina to give Arsenal an improbable lead. However, the Gunners were intent in showing everyone what dunderheads they can be in the cranial department by expressly repeating two of last season`s mistakes in this ill fated Champions League fixture. As Liverpool took the kick off, incredibly, no Arsenal player bar Fabianski was in position as they were all busy having a cosy chat. The end result was, just like last year, Liverpool quashed our advantage instantly and, just like last year, an Arsenal centre back thought it a decent idea to give Torres ample room in the box to collect Riera`s pass, turn, rearrange his alice band and spank the ball low past Fabianski. Evidently, Arsenal is a fleet of talented footballers, but most of the players have brains the size of a gnat`s sphincter. Having already been scarred for life by the horrendous 4-4 draw with Spurs in October you`d have thought our lot would have learnt, apparently not. How many times do you stick your balls into a toaster before you realise it`s not a very good idea?
Liverpool needed to win or bust and the game opened up as a result. The Gunners were largely pinned back onto the edge of their own area, but cleverly deployed Walcott as a lone striker to feast ravenously on the ocean of space Liverpool had left in search of glory. Torres once again found himself unmarked in the penalty area from a Riera corner, but Gibbs was on hand to smuggle his header off the line. Tune in next week as Arsenal`s centre halves arrive at the Cannibals` convention stripped naked and garnished in horseradish. Yet amazingly, with Liverpool increasingly desperate for a winner, it looked as though Arsenal were to emerge victorious again. Fabregas found a modicum of space on the edge of the area and released Forest Gump himself to try and produce his own carbon copy of Anfield in April 2008, but this time he had only one defender to circumnavigate with Liverpool overcommitted. Arshavin achieved the notable feat of catching Walcott up high up the pitch, Walcott duly made the pass and Arshavin had the time and space to control and rifle the ball past Reina the precise moment the clock struck 90. It was the archetypal smash and grab, surely even Arsenal with their mono brain celled defence could hold on for injury time to record a famous victory. Apparently not, as the fourth official indicated a baffling five minutes injury time, the home side needed less than half of that to once again feed on our ever increasing stupidity. Kuyt humped a hopeful cross into the box which Fabianski came for and did not deal with and Benayoun hooked the ball into an unguarded net. Thank Christ this lot weren`t in defence in 1989, we`d have gone 4-2 down after Mickey Thomas` goal otherwise. We were past despair at this point and instead the feeling was of exasperation as the game and the defending had long since passed the checkpoint of ridiculous. Wenger was manifestly frustrated as he came out of his technical area to boot the ball away in disgust, it hit Arbeloa quite accidentally. Coward Webb tried to make a big deal out of it until he was talked out of it by Jamie Carragher.
Though we were ultimately very fortunate to come away with a draw, my prevailing feeling was one of immense disappointment and of fear for the season ahead. To clarify, Arsenal have to go to Old Trafford next week with that back four and without Andrey Arshavin. If we defend even a tenth as badly as that, then the Second Leg might as well be called off now. Ferdinand and Vidic are not going to give us that many attempts at their goal and, even so, the only Arsenal player who looked like scoring- and ultimately did score- cannot play. We simply have to wise up and very quickly, our complete inability to close out games has hampered us for the last three years and this team shows little to no interest in correcting their naivety. In the last two games combined, we have assumed the lead a total of four times and come out with nothing. This is our second 4-4 draw this season and the third time we have succumbed to last ditch equalisers. Teams with our aspirations simply cannot afford to show such cranial density in games such as these otherwise we will always be perennial bridesmaids. The wiliness of Gallas was certainly amiss, but he also played in the 4-4 draw with Spurs, as did Almunia and Clichy- and both made horrendous mistakes in that game. This is a collective problem in our squad and it is not fair to simply lay it at Silvestre`s door or Fabianski`s or anyone else`s. The problem precedes all of the individuals that played last night bar Kolo (and I would not blame him solely either). When Chelsea took the lead on Saturday, they had the nous to keep the ball, to draw the fouls in midfield and see the game out. I`m not quite sure how many times this harsh lesson is going to be dished out to us before we start engaging our brains and stop this dog with two dicks impression, but given that it was brutally handed to us at this very venue 12 months ago, I wouldn`t count on them learning anytime soon. The positives were the displays of Nasri, whose defensive work put most of our back four to shame, as well as the obvious four goal haul of Arshavin. How must he feel this morning having been had his thunder stolen on four separate occasions by the stupidity of his colleagues further back? We have the talent to defeat United over two legs, unfortunately, I rather doubt we have the brains.LD.
Date:Wednesday April 22 2009
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