UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final, First Leg
Arsenal 1 – 1 Liverpool
1 – 0 Adebayor (22)
1 – 1 Kuyt (25)
Not quite worthy of a police warrant being issued by the Met for a mugging but probably only the football’s Gods know how Liverpool are in a decent position for the second leg. The referee will not be able to explain it nor will Nicklas Bendtner.
They say that football is game of two halves. Arsenal’s performance last night most definitely was. A tentative opening fifteen minutes paved the way for an upbeat remainder of the first quarter of this match. At the end of it, Arsenal had deservedly taken the lead. If Pepe Reina was not worked hard in the Liverpool goal during this spell, his colleagues further up the pitch were as the Arsenal passing game got into stride.
It culminated with Robin van Persie swinging in the ball from a short corner and Emmanuel Adebayor going for a paseo on the edge of the six yard box, have time to look around and admire the architecture of The Emirates Stadium before leaping salmon-like to head unchallenged into an unguarded net. Quite possibly the best possible start; one up in twenty-two minutes and in control.
Within three minutes, Liverpool were level. Flamini missed his tackle on Gerrard and the Liverpool skipper found himself one-on-one with Toure, ghosting past him with ease; his cross deflected off of the recovering Flamini and Kuyt scrambled the ball home. It was a soft goal to concede and one full of what-if’s. What if Flamini had been able to connect properly with his initial tackle? What if the ball had not rebounded kindly for Liverpool at that moment? What if Gerrard had been tackled in the area (he would have gone done like a sack of spuds)? What if Senderos had slid in as well as Clichy and Kuyt (he would probably have scored an own goal)?
The remainder of the first half saw the team look shell-shocked. Passes were over-hit and under-angled, under-hit and over-angled or any combination. Eboue and Hleb were left isolated on the wings with a lack of support from the full backs. In that respect, Sagna is sorely missed. Toure did well at Right Back defensively but a lack of playing time in the position has dulled his attacking senses down the flanks. Once Liverpool had achieved that it was a relatively straightforward exercise for them to outnumber Fabregas and Flamini in the central areas.
Whatever Arsene is saying in his half time talks these days needs to be bottled. For the second successive game, the transformation was incredible. van Persie made way for Walcott through injury. Arsene revealed after the game that the Dutchman is a high probability absentee for Saturday and may not recover in time for Tuesday either. In the current run of fixtures, the loss of that option may prove to be costly.
However, the introduction of Walcott changed the shape of the team and allowed Hleb to roam more freely, vastly improving his effectiveness. Passes that had gone astray in the opening half suddenly found feet; Liverpool were reduced to being hemmed into their own half with only sporadic breaks, the vast majority of which were dealt with quite comfortably by the back four. Toure and Clichy both broke forward more effectively giving more width but for Eboue, the evening did not work as planned, ending in what turned out to be a costly substitution.
The match hinged on two key incidents. Arsene was understandably furious at one of them post match, understandably bemused by the other. Indeed, TV replays later showed Arsene looking like he was swearing at the Bendtner incident.
Only the referee knows why he did not give a penalty when Hleb was hauled back by Kuyt. His view was uninterrupted; the only possible explanation was that at the moment Kuyt grabbed the Belorussian’s arm, he was obscuring the referee’s line of vision. No, I do not believe that either. Quite simply it was a howler from the Dutch official. He had a quiet evening with little to do, evidenced by the lack of bookings. One ‘big’ decision; he got it horribly wrong.
What followed later is even more inexplicable. Adebayor broke free on the left edge of the area, got to the bye-line, put in a decent cross that Reina flapped away under pressure from Bendtner. The ball broke to Fabregas who stabbed the ball forward, towards the corner of the net; the lead Arsene craved for the second leg was assured. Except that Bendtner produced a quick-step that will haunt him for the rest of the season if Arsenal fall at this hurdle. Suffice to say, not even one of Denis Norden’s witty monologues could have made anyone vaguely connected with Arsenal smile at that one.
I still cannot work out what he was doing but he has real problems if he cannot jump over a ball that is a foot off of the ground. Instead he blocked a certain goal and was given offside. Did I mention earlier that it was a costly substitution. It was indeed for Eboue would not have been in the position to block that effort on goal had he been on the pitch.
Such is life though. We go to Anfield in a slightly worse position than we did in Milan but the objective is the same. The pressure is the same. We have to score to progress. For Benitez the pressure is different. Do Liverpool defend and snuff the game out? What happens if Arsenal score first? Can his charges turn matters around? The away goal gives Liverpool an advantage but also a weight on their shoulders. It is by no means certain that they are going to go through, no matter what the media says.