Wenger relishes English test as Liverpool stand in Arsenal's way
A red-on-red battle between English football's foreign stylists, Arsenal, and the English team with more European trophies than any other, Liverpool, in the Champions League quarter-finals could define both clubs' season. After being paired for a first-ever meeting in European competition, Arsène Wenger is optimistic of success but Rafael Benitez, while upbeat, acknowledged the mountainous path to glory ahead.
The draw in Switzerland also pitted Chelsea against Fenerbahce of Turkey, with the winner facing Arsenal or Liverpool in the semi-finals. Manchester United will meet Roma, with the victors earning a semi-final against Barcelona or Schalke.
Liverpool's task is daunting from any angle. The Champions League games with Arsenal, in London on Wednesday 2 April and at Anfield on Tuesday 8 April, sandwich a Premier League game against the Gunners at the Emirates. Three and none easy. Benitez's side, in a race with Everton for the coveted fourth place in the Premier League, also face the small matter of their two league games before the Arsenal meetings being at Manchester United (23 March) and a Merseyside derby (30 March).
Liverpool's Champions League assignment is put in context by the three teams they will most likely have to beat to win it: Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, in that order. The three teams above them in the league. Three teams they have failed to beat this season.
They have drawn twice with Chelsea in the Premier League and lost to them in the Carling Cup, lost to United at home in the League and took only a point at home against Arsenal. Liverpool fans will point to a good European record in recent seasons, especially against Chelsea, but Benitez would have preferred to avoid domestic opposition in the quarter-finals.
"Arsenal are at the top of the table, a very good team," he said. He suggested that Arsenal, unlike foreign opponents, will not be bowed by the atmosphere at Anfield. "Arsenal have experience in Anfield ... The first game will be important. To have a good result will be easier for our supporters to be on top of them. It's not the same situation when you talk about a foreign club."
He said that a draw at the Emirates "would be good" and that it would be important to score there. Asked if Liverpool, after rallying domestically and beating Internazionale, are the form side in Britain, he said: "We did really well in the beginning of the season, lost confidence with the draws but have more confidence now."
On his side's prospects, he added: "We have an opportunity to go forward but it will be difficult. When you play the Champions League, you play the best teams in Europe... I would like to play in the final against an English team because I would like to be in the final."
Wenger's CV in the competition includes one final, a defeat to Barcelona in 2006, while Benitez's includes two finals against Milan, with victory in 2005 being Liverpool's fifth European Cup success. But Wenger said Benitez's record "doesn't bother us at all. If on the day you are at your best ... I'm confident."
Wenger said he would "relish" meeting Chelsea (odds-on favourite to beat Fenerbahce) and then United, should United beat Roma and then, probably, Barça. He was also quick to highlight his side's superiority over Liverpool, in the domestic standings at least.
"I would relish [Chelsea and United] because it means we go through. But football is not predictable and that's why it's interesting. At the moment Liverpool are fighting to be in the Champions League and we are fighting for the championship. I believe that the players genuinely want to do well in both competitions. Don't forget that, since the start of the season, we have lost only one game in the championship and one game in the Champions League and that was when we were already qualified. So we are entitled to believe we can do well in both competitions.
"We showed against Milan that when we are at our best we can beat anyone. We just knocked Milan out, who were the holders. That was a big hurdle. Now we have the [other 2007] finalists on our route – so why can't we do it again?"
The Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, could be forgiven the same sentiment in relation to Roma. United beat them 7-1 at the same stage in the home leg last year, and took four points from the Italians in this season's group stage.
"It's incredible," he said. "I had a strong feeling that we would draw an English side. It's amazing to think that we will have played Roma six times in a year. That makes it an intriguing tie because we know a lot about Roma, but they know a lot about us."
He continued: "Away from the football, obviously my biggest concern is the fans. During the game in Rome this season the security was much improved. But there will be even more fans travelling with us. That said, I have a feeling it will be another great European tie."
Chelsea's Avram Grant was respectful about Fenerbahce. "They played very well against Seville. It's not an easy draw but our targets stay the same. We are a club that hasn't been in the final. We want to be in the final."
Champions League: The last eight on the road to Moscow
Arsenal v Liverpool. To be played: 2 and 8 April
League pos: 1st, Premier League
Coach: Arsène Wenger
EC best: Final
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W5 D2 L1 F16 A4. Top scorer: Cesc Fabregas 4
League pos: 4th, Premier League
Coach: Rafael Benitez
EC best: Winners (5)
Champions League 2007/08 P8 W5 D1 L2 F21 A5. Top scorer: Steven Gerrard 5
Schalke 04 v Barcelona. To be played: 1 and 9 April
League pos: 5th, Bundesliga
Coach: Mirko Slomka
EC best: Quarter-Final
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W3 D2 L3 (1-0 defeat to Porto in Round of 16, 4-1 win after pen) F6 A5 . Top scorer: Kevin Kuranyi 3
League pos: 2nd, La Liga
Coach: Frank Rijkaard
EC best: Winners (2)
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W6 D2 L0 F16 A5. Top scorer: Lionel Messi 6
Fenerbahce v Chelsea. To be played: 2 and 8 April
League pos: 3rd, Süper Lig
EC best: Last 16
Champions League 2007/08: P10 W6 D2 L2* (won 3-2 penalties v Seville (First knock-out round)) F16 A11. Top scorer: Deivid 4
League pos: 3rd, Premiership
Coach: Avram Grant
EC best: Semi-final
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W4 D4 L0 F12 A2. Top scorer: Didier Drogba 4
Roma v Manchester United. To be played: 1 and 9 April
League pos: 2nd, Serie A
Coach: Luciano Spalletti
EC best: Final
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W5 D2 L1 F15 A8. Top scorer: Mirko Vucinic 4
League pos: 2nd, Premiership
Coach: Sir Alex Ferguson
EC best: Winners (2)
Champions League 2007/08: P8 W6 D2 L0 F15 A5. Top scorer: Ronaldo 6
Arsenal or Liverpool v Fenerbahce or Chelsea
(First leg 22/23 April, second leg 29/30 April)
Schalke 04 or Barcelona v Roma or Manchester United
(First leg 22/23 April, second leg 29/30 April)
Smith senses a Sporting chance
Rangers will face Sporting Lisbon in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup and their manager, Walter Smith, believes a semi-final against Fiorentina or PSV Eindhoven is a distinct possibility.
"Portuguese sides always have a bit of flair and a good balance but I feel we have a good chance to progress," Smith said. "We have gone through against one of the sides I considered to be one of the favourites [Werder Bremen, beaten 2-1 on aggregate] so hopefully we can continue our run. We are obviously delighted to be in the last eight and we would want to go further."
Rangers beat Sporting on the way to winning the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1972. Smith said: "Let's hope history repeats itself."
Quarter-finals: Bayer Leverkusen (Ger) v Zenit St Petersburg (Rus); Rangers (Sco) v Sporting Lisbon (Por); Bayern Munich (Ger) v Getafe (Sp); Fiorentina (It) v PSV Eindhoven (Neth). Ties to be played 3 & 10 April. Semi-finals: Bayern or Getafe v Bayer Leverkusen or Zenit St Petersburg; Rangers or Sporting Lisbon v Fiorentina or PSV Eindhoven. Ties to be played 24 April & 1 May. Final: City of Manchester Stadium, 14 May.
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