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

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

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Flat out: Michael Flatley will return to the stage in his show Lord Of The Dance
Michael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
News
Jermain Defoe got loads of custard
i100
News
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape