Liverpool v Arsenal: Gunners must face Spanish inquisition
Anfield atmosphere will test Arsenal's resolve after conceding at home but Benitez admits that Liverpool will also need to score
Sunday 06 April 2008
In the beginning there was Emilio Aldecoa, a Basque refugee, who played for Coventry City in the 1946-47 season. Nowadays there are Spaniards dotted throughout English football, yet never have so many of such high profile been thrown together as in the current round of matches between Arsenaland Liverpool.
Injuries permitting, Rafa Benitez will be expected to select Jose Reina, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres for Tuesday's second leg of the Champions' League quarter-final at Anfield, just as he did for the 1-1 draw in London last Wednesday, with the defender Alvaro Arbeloa again among the substitutes.
Like Benitez, Arsène Wenger tends to pick more of his own countrymen than any other nationality, but for the first game he still had two Spaniards in key positions alongside his three Frenchmen: Manuel Almunia can expect more work in the opposite goal to Reina this time, and Cesc Fabregas will need to be at least as influential as he was at the Emirates.
When the teams last met at Anfield, for a 1-1 draw in September, Fabregas was also outstanding in what he called "one of our best games this season", scoring a deserved late equaliser to Steven Gerrard's early goal. On that Sunday afternoon, however, Alonso and Torres both limped off and Benitez was still some way from finding the right blend, unsuccessfully fielding Andriy Voronin on the left of midfield in the position now occupied by either Ryan Babel or Yossi Benayoun.
The Liverpool manager has somehow developed a habit of getting things right for these big European nights, working as hard in the technical area as anyone on the pitch and making the most of detailed, Mourinho-like preparation. Twice – or four times, you might say – he had the better of Mourinho in two-leg semi-finals, killing the away games then squeezing home by the thinnest margins on Merseyside. Arsenal's fear is that they may go the same way as Chelsea did, which may explain one or two pre-emptive strikes about Liverpool's supposed negativity.
After Wenger described Dirk Kuyt as being an extra right-back, Fabregas appeared to be anticipating the worst when he accused Liverpool of refusing to play. "We want to play football and attack," he said. "Just because the other team refuses to play, we do not have to do the same thing. We want to stick to our football and even if you lose, at least you tried what you wanted."
He agreed that the difficulties of doing so, especially for midfielders like him and team-mate Mathieu Flamini, are caused by Benitez's use of Alonso and the Argentinian Javier Mascherano as central holding players: "Mascherano is an amazing player," Fabregas added. "I could feel the air [his breath] on my neck every time in the first half. Defensively he's very good, and with the ball he knows what he's doing.
"They defend very well in the centre of midfield and they know we like to play through the middle so they try to cut out the balls through. Then with Gerrard and Torres they are very quick and very dangerous. Even more now with 1-1, I think all they'll want to do is defend and catch us on the break."
If Benitez would not entirely subscribe to that tactical analysis, he admitted that with the massive security of Kuyt's away goal in the locker, the Anfield crowd must be patient rather than screaming "Attack, attack, attack" from the first whistle.
"The fans must be key for us," he said, "in terms of pushing the team and also to understand how we play. Arsenal are very dangerous in counterattack. We know they can score, we know we must approach the game with a lot of respect because we are playing a fantastic team. So we need to be careful and OK, try to win. They are very offensive, they can score, so we need to score if we want to progress."
First they must beat Almunia, who was at Osasuna in one of Benitez's less successful periods.He has not lost in four visits to Anfield, his favourite away ground. "The atmosphere there is the best in the world, I like so much to play at Anfield," he said. "It's unbelievable how the team and the crowd act in the same way together. The crowd boosts the team in any situation and that's fantastic, even for us."
Just as Liverpool will take heart from so many glorious European nights, of recent and older vintage, so Arsenal can draw strength from victories against the odds away to Real Madrid, Internazionale and, last time out, Milan. But even Almunia believes that Liverpool are "much stronger" than Milan, who beat them in last season's final. The possibility of a penalty shoot-out with Reina and Almunia between the posts must be worth a few pesetas.
Liverpool (1) v Arsenal (1)
Recovering so quickly in the first leg from conceding a terrible goal to score an excellent one, Liverpool were able to curtail their ambition thereafter and must now be slight favourites. But only slight; expect another tense night.
Chelsea (1) v Fenerbahce (2)
Had Avram Grant transformed a poor first half in Istanbul into a fine second one, his stock would have risen. Chelsea having performed the other way round, he looks like King Midas in reverse and now needs to take advantage of Fenerbahce's travel sickness.
Barcelona (1) v Schalke (0)
The German side's chronic lack of goals proved a predictable handicap in their home leg, when the gifted midfielder Ivan Rakitic was also badly missed. Schalke seemed to be suffering from an inferiority complex that can only be worse now.
Manchester Utd (2) v Roma (0)
Barcelona against United (withthe first leg in Spain) is looking a nailed-on semi-final, and the latter's main concern must be that Roma do not attempt retribution on Cristiano Ronaldo for what they saw as his showing-off in last week's game.
15-8 Manchester United; 11-4 Barcelona; 9-2 Chelsea; 11-2 Liverpool; 7-1 Arsenal; 25-1 Fenerbahce; 100-1 Roma and Schalke.
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