UEFA Champions League, Quarter Final, 2nd Leg
Liverpool 4 – 2 Arsenal
Liverpool win 5 – 3 on aggregate
0 – 1 Diaby (13)
1 – 1 Hyppia (30)
2 – 1 Torres (68)
2 – 2 Adebayor (83)
3 – 2 Gerrard (84 pen)
4 – 2 Babbel (90)
She is a dominatrix who shows no mercy to the frailties of man. In yesterday’s headline I ‘demanded’ a performance of Champions. What happened was a performance that encapsulated a season in ninety minutes. An opening third that blew away all before them, a rocky spell just before halfway mark, recovery of composure without being totally convincing, a brief shining beacon just as hope seemed lost, only for the fatal blow to be self-inflicted.
Sixty seconds was all that it took for a night of glory to be destroyed, a collective loss of concentration. When the game was there to be seen out quietly, the team were unable to do so. To lay the blame of elimination at the door of Kolo Toure is unfair; it was the pivotal moment of the night but this was a tie that had three such incidents that ultimately led to Arsenal’s exit. If the referee correctly pointed to the spot last night – there was contact and in this day and age, you touch your opponent with your arm, it is seven times out of ten going to be a penalty – then his peer in the first leg was equally wrong to deny Hleb and if only Nicklas Bendtner could jump a foot higher. A tie of ‘what ifs’ if ever there was one.
It had been an evening that started so promisingly. Total control of the first thirty minutes, rewarded by Abou Diaby’s goal. Receiving the ball on the left edge of the penalty area, he fed Adebayor whose cross-shot was parried by Reina and scrambled clear to Flamini. Hleb received a short pass on the right of the area and slipped the pass through to Diaby, who had drifted across the area. He completed the move with a rifling drive into the net. Forget about the criticism of Reina; this was Diaby’s moment in the sun and nothing more than Arsenal deserved.
This spell was a return to form. From the kick-off, the passing game slipped effortlessly into gear. Senderos and Gallas had control of Crouch and Torres; Toure and Eboue had Gerrard in their pocket to the extent that he was rendered ineffectual; Flamini and Fabregas were the ‘daddy’s’ of the centre, losing Alonso and Mascherano at will to free Hleb to play unhindered. Adebayor had plenty of support and was pushing onto the last man so tight that the offside’s given were marginal and quite easily have gone the other way.
Eboue in particular showed the way forward on the right, probing and matching anything that Diaby provided on the left, short of a goal. Five minutes after the goal, it seemed that Diaby and Clichy had set him up for a wild strike at goal; instead he lifted the ball over a defender, kept his shot down only to see it deflected to the safe arms of Reina. In the second, you wonder if he had gone down in the area whether the referee would have pointed to the spot minutes before Torres gave Liverpool the lead. He was castigated for shooting but looking at his body shape as he hit the ground after rounding Reina, I think he was trying to square it across goal but ran out of space.
The good spell came to an end on the half-hour mark. Almunia made a good save from a fierce cross-shot from Gerrard. At the ensuing corner, Senderos lost his bearings and Hyppia took full advantage. An undeserved equaliser had arrived. From that point on, the Arsenal boat rocked in the Anfield sea with Liverpool dominating the final quarter of an hour of the first half. With five minutes of the half remaining, a blow on Flamini’s ankle received from Gerrard led to his early departure and unsettled the team. Gilberto replaced him and in the remaining minutes, he turned back the clock with a neat pass inside to Fabregas and a good block to stop a marauding Aurelio in his tracks. At that point, the loss of Flamini seemed to be a momentary and unfazing incident on the night.
The second period started as the first ended with Liverpool on top. Despite an early good save by Almunia from Gerrard’s drive, the hosts were not creating real chances. Lots of threatening possession with Arsenal sitting back and soaking up the pressure. On the hour mark, Liverpool seemed to lose their way and long spells of Arsenal possession ensued. It did not last though. A punt upfield saw Crouch induce panic on the right-hand side of Liverpool’s defence between Gallas and Toure. For the only time in the evening, the knockdown fell to Torres who had got behind the two Arsenal defenders. Senderos tried to cover but could not get close enough to prevent the turn and shot that led to the hosts having the advantage.
Arsene responded by introducing Walcott and van Persie into the fray, withdrawing Diaby and Eboue, as the equaliser was sought. It almost arrived within ninety seconds. Hleb on the left arced a pass forward that was missed by the Liverpool defence. Adebayor beat Reina to the ball, lifted in over the Spaniard to see it drift wide. A glorious chance went begging.
It seemed not to matter though when ten minutes later Theo Walcott picked up the ball in his own half and ran eighty yards at full pelt brushing off four Liverpool challenges. Retaining his composure, he squared the ball behind the Liverpool defence where Adebayor waited to slot home. Glory days beckoned and were equally quickly snatched away.
Whatever the root of the problem is, a regular charge is of how Arsenal cannot see out a game. It is, of course, not totally true otherwise the team would not have been in the top three all season. Last night, they chose to prove the misinformation correct. Babel charged into the area and in trying to get behind the Liverpool attacker, Toure’s arm made contact. It does not take much to have a forward go down in the box at the best of times. When your team needs a goal, the urgency with which the floor seems an appealing option, hastens. Steven Gerrard was given a redemptive moment having missed his kick to allow Theo to start his run; this time the Liverpool skipper was calm and firm in his shot and the tie had swung away from Arsenal permanently. The fourth Liverpool goal was somewhat inevitable as gaps emerged, Babel outsprinting Fabregas to beat Almunia and seal the win in the dying moments.
A glorious failure it might have been but one in which the team should take belief. They showed no fear and came so close. The history books and statistics can record the events but they never truly show the reality. Arsene may rage about penalties, fuelled by a sense of injustice but injuries have cost the squad more dearly. What if Flamini had not been crocked before half-time? What if Rosicky were fit? What if RvP had not lost half a season? As I said earlier, a time of ‘what ifs’.
In 2003-04, a difficult spell was put behind the team with a 4 – 2 home win over Liverpool, a big game. In 2007-08, another big game looms at the weekend, an extra day to rest weary bones. A win at Old Trafford and the heights of 1988-89 may yet be scaled once more. Defeat and the season of promise will peter out as 1987-88 did, leaving a solid foundation for the future in its wake. A test of character for Arsene and his staff to lift the players. Last night showed the players have the mental strength but this time they need it for the full ninety minutes.