Advantage Rafael Benitez – another classic from the old master of the Champions League smash and grab. Last night his team made the dark art of European football look bliss-fully simple as they took Arsène Wenger's season to the brink of extinction.
Arsenal will remember the penalty that was never given to Alexander Hleb and they will regret the moment that they allowed Dirk Kuyt in to poach the equaliser, three minutes after Emmanuel Adebayor gave them the lead. But most of all they will consider the trip to Anfield on Tuesday with bleak foreboding: nowhere in Europe, not even San Siro, has quite the same reputation as the fortress in Stanley Park.
In between those games, these two teams meet again in the Premier League on Saturday and that will have to be some game to beat the excitement of last night. We anticipated a cagey exchange of jabs; instead it turned out to be a hectic clash more redolent of an FA Cup tie. The sub-plot was extraordinary too: the Dutch referee Pieter Vink, who failed to give a penalty when Kuyt pulled down Hleb, comes from a village just a few miles from the hometown of the Liverpool striker.
No allegations of favouritism are being made of course, but Vink lived up to his nickname when he failed to see the tug by Kuyt on Hleb in the 66th minute. When he is not on duty as a policeman, Vink's friends call him "Blind" which means exactly the same in Dutch as it does in English. In only his sixth Champions League game it was unfortunate that he had failed to spot an incident that unfolded less than 10 yards in front of him.
But it would do no justice to Benitez's side to say that they rode their luck because in Steven Gerrard and, to a lesser extent Kuyt, they had the game's outstanding performers. The Liverpool captain's jinking run down the left to create his team's goal was the moment of outstanding quality in the match. It trumped anything conjured by Cesc Fabregas. If only Gerrard could play like this when he pulls on an England shirt.
Do Arsenal have what it takes to open up Liverpool at Anfield? Does anyone? Arsenal have built a reputation as an extravagant, attacking team this season and they will have to be at their very optimum on Tuesday. When they visited to Anfield in October, Arsenal played some of their most breathtaking football of the season and emerged only with a 1-1 draw. Wenger will have to gamble even more this time.
Last night you could not help but feel that Wenger was outfoxed by Benitez. In the first half, Gerrard seemed to find himself in acres of space, to the extent that the Arsenal manager reorganised his side to deal with the Liverpool captain at half-time and threw on Theo Walcott. Obviously he was chasing a second goal too – and almost got one – but it is rare to see Wenger change a side tactically to cope with what the opposition have achieved.
At the final whistle, Kuyt's goal felt like it was golden. Liverpool were opened up just the once and Arsenal had done so with their one big flourish of the first half. Yet once Wenger's team had taken the lead their opponents showed a purpose that took the Emirates stadium's breath away.
First it was Arsenal: a beautiful move that stretched from the right wing to Robin van Persie in the centre – the kind of passing sequence that has been the undoing of so many visitors to this stadium. From the right Emmanuel Eboué flicked the ball to Fabregas, who turned and found Van Persie in the centre. The shot was low and hard and Pepe Reina did well to push it past the post.
Liverpool failed to get organised for the corner which Van Persie struck from Arsenal's right wing on 23 minutes. Adebayor took three steps away from the goal and had all the time he needed to head the ball past Reina. The space he was allowed was embarrassing. Who was supposed to be marking him? Sami Hyypia was closest but far from close enough.
From there Wenger's side should have taken the game by the throat yet, if anything, the goal galvanised Liverpool. In less than three minutes they were level. Gerrard picked the ball up on the left, exchanged passes with Fernando Torres and set off. He swayed in one direction and took the ball around Eboué, he switched feet and left Kolo Touré behind. Reaching the touchline he cut the ball back into the box. Kuyt and Gaël Clichy converged on the ball but it was the Liverpool striker who had the decisive touch.
The stuffing had been knocked out of Wenger's side. Liverpool had more ideas and better attacks. Walcott came on at half-time, Mathieu Flamini and Fabregas appeared to take turns dropping deeper to deal with the threat of Gerrard. Walcott hit one shot that hovered past Reina's left post as Arsenal edged closer. On 65 minutes Adebayor broke down the left channel of Arsenal's area, Walcott took over and cut the ball back to Eboué. The Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel kicked the ball off his own line.
But the most controversial moment of the game came moments later. Hleb broke into the area and had got his shoulder past the last covering player, Kuyt, when the Arsenal midfielder was pulled and fell to the ground. It was a penalty and Vink failed to see it. In the two Dutch villages of Katwijk and Noordwijkerhout that these two men come from that moment will go down in local lore.
Shortly afterwards Wenger threw on Nicklas Bendtner. On 71 minutes, the Dutch striker was at the centre of another remarkable goalmouth scramble. Adebayor got past Skrtel and clipped the ball back across goal, Reina pushed it clear but only as far as Fabregas. His shot was goalbound and, as Bendtner tried to get out of the way – or was he trying to backheel it in? – the Arsenal striker only succeeded in clearing the ball.
You could not help but feel that Arsenal's season is collapsing while, characteristically, Liverpool's is taking shape when it matters most.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Touré, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy; Eboué (Bendtner, 67), Fabregas, Flamini, Hleb; Van Persie (Walcott, h-t), Adebayor. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Diaby, Song, Gilberto, Bendtner, J Hoyte.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Hyypia, Skrtel, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun, 57); Torres (Voronin, 86). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Riise, Crouch, Arbeloa, Lucas.
Referee: P Vink (Netherlands).
Arsenal's stuttering form
*Arsenal's run since winning in Milan on 4 March:
P5 W1 D3 L1
0-0 v Wigan, a, PL
1-1 v Middlesbro, h, PL
1-2 v Chelsea, a, PL
3-2 v Bolton, a, PL
1-1 v Liverpool, h, CL
*Next three games:
Sat v Liverpool, h, PL
Tues v Liverpool, a, CL
Sat 13 April v Manchester United, a, PLReuse content