James Lawton: Arsenal's brilliance casts a shadow on Anfield Road
Set against the drama of Liverpool's turmoil, the potential shown by Arshavin and Wenger's young Gunners is the stuff of football dreams
Friday 06 November 2009
The nightmare of Liverpool was always going to provide this week's most riveting drama in Europe. What we couldn't know, though, was that it would be put into quite such tortured perspective by somebody else's dream. Arsenal's, that is.
It is a wonderful dream because it is based on quite stunning football values – as deeply impressive, indeed, as those carried so brilliantly by Barcelona to Rome's Stadio Olimpico for the Champions League final last spring.
Yes, we know the opposition provided by Ronald Koeman's AZ Alkmaar was several rungs below the level of competition Arsène Wenger's men must master if they are to deliver the club's first European crown, but as workouts go this one was in a category of its own.
We also know that it has happened before – perhaps most spectacularly two seasons ago when Arsenal went to San Siro and dismantled Milan. That superb eruption was followed by a quarter-final defeat by Liverpool, but now only the morbid would want to dwell on any comparison between the situations of the two clubs.
Arsenal, we see more clearly than ever, are wedded to quality, to an unbroken pursuit of excellence in both conception and execution.
Yet there is something more than the selection of a policy option which steadfastly rejects any compromise in the matter of how the game should be played. There is a passion which the jubilant Wenger expressed in the simplest terms after an exquisite attacking performance. "We played like we loved the game tonight," he said after Wednesday's 4-1 win.
For the uncommitted, too, what was there not to love?
Samir Nasri's return reminded us of the extent of the loss represented by his injury for the first part of the season, as did some of the performances of the long sidetracked Tomas Rosicky. But it was in the sublime touch and judgement of Andrei Arshavin that we surely saw the essence of Wenger's belief in what is most important in football: beauty, wit and above all the imagination which defines the very best of the game.
The goals he delivered to Cesc Fabregas and Abou Diaby were ultimate examples of team football. They spoke of absolute awareness of the possibilities created by unselfish running and a deep understanding of the potential of team-mates. Fabregas, a young lord of the game, said as much when he casually patted his older Russian colleague's cheek in thanks for a perfectly delivered pass. It was the kind of gesture which said, "Isn't this what we do, isn't this who we are?"
It was perhaps not so odd that Arshavin, despite being such a luminous presence in last year's European Championship, was always likely to join Arsenal if he moved to England. Some thought he was maybe too old to surrender his role as the pocket tsar of St Petersburg and take his chances on the quick and physically draining treadmill of the Premier League, and perhaps also a little too fragile. But if Wenger used such doubts as a bargaining tool, signing Arshavin for a knockdown £10m in transfer window brinkmanship uncomplicated by any rival bids, he was plainly sure about the 28-year-old Russian's ability to make a vital, maybe even inspirational, contribution to the development of a young side.
Such calculation no doubt also went into arguably the signing of last summer, the stealing – because this is what it increasingly appears to be – of Ajax defender Thomas Vermaelen for another £10m.
Such dealing, certainly, throws into the harshest light the scattergun moves of Liverpool, for whom the performances of such as centre-back reserve Sotirios Kyrgiakos and displaced Andrei Voronin in Lyons suggested again a squad strength simply not able to support success at the highest level.
There is another rather shocking point of comparison: Liverpool agreed to pay for their embarrassing Robbie Keane misadventure roughly Arsenal's outlay on Arshavin and Vermaelen.
However, it is necessary to give to the embattled Rafa Benitez his due. Whatever the morass he now occupies, he did reach the European mountain top that so haunts the dream of Wenger. The Arsenal manager, who was both devastated and bitter in Paris in 2006 when he lost to Barcelona, conceded that his work was still one in progress even when he celebrated the serenity of this week's performance. "I believe in this team," he declared yet again. "The demand on us is to be consistent and then we can see how far we can go in this competition."
For the moment they must be rated third among English contenders, behind the increasingly formidable Chelsea and their rampant warrior-in-chief Didier Drogba and a Manchester United struggling to reproduce the authority that came with successive marches to the Champions League final – and what may prove to have been the golden years of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Yet if doubts will inevitably linger about Arsenal's ability to produce the competitive fortitude required in the later stages of the world's greatest club competition, it is still necessary, as it was last season in the case of Barça, to marvel at the goal they have set themselves.
It is not only to win the ultimate prize but to do it in a way that anyone who loves football is duty-bound to embrace. This may be a pious sentiment in an age of hysterical partisanship, but if some of Arsenal's recent performances do not provide it with a breath of support nothing will.
Across the Atlantic they have a habit of bestowing the title America's Team on any side whose appeal has crossed barriers of local prejudice. Dallas Cowboys long enjoyed such a description and no doubt the latest World Series success of the New York Yankees will grab at least some schoolboy hearts in remote Prairie townships.
Calling Arsenal England's Team may be far too much of a push, especially when the foundation of their virtuosity has long been imported. However, like Barcelona before them, they are certainly challenging for a title beyond the remit of any of the game's authorities. Maybe, for the moment at least, we might just call them Football's Team.
Our experts' verdicts: Who'll win European Cup?
James Lawton Chief Sports Writer
Winners: Chelsea; Dark horses: Arsenal
Sam Wallace Football Correspondent
Winners: Barcelona; Dark horses: Porto
Ian Herbert Deputy Football Correspondent
Winners: Barcelona; Dark horses: Real Madrid
Glenn Moore Football Editor
Winners: Chelsea; Dark horses: Arsenal
Mark Fleming Football Reporter
Winners: Chelsea; Dark horses: Fiorentina
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