James Lawton: Even in stalemate, Arsenal's fluid ambition surpasses Liverpool's laboured triumph

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The Independent Online

The week was Liverpool's, but who owned the future? It was surely Arsenal. It belonged to them in the way they played, in the scale of their ambition. Final execution was lacking, yes, but this is something that can sometimes elude the best of talent. You can practice execution. Ambition is something else and in this Arsenal team, plainly, it came at birth.

Liverpool do have a certain ambition but it is so much narrower and often it seems as though it is choked at the first signs that it might take life.

This week they made what could prove to be a significant stride towards their third Champions League final in four years. It is a dazzling prospect until you get up close. Then you see the flaws – and feel the touch of a robot.

Arsenal were without goals but not the vibrant life which comes with the belief that beautiful football will sooner or later bring its own rewards.

This may be romantic but it is also logical despite Rafa Benitez's latest smash-and-grab that takes him to San Siro in three weeks' time cushioned by a two-goal lead over the masters of Italian football, Internazionale – a week after Arsenal may well have been punished in the same stadium for their failure to exploit the chances that came against reigning European champions, but current Serie A makeweights, Milan.

Did we say logical? Yes. Arsenal may not have gained a single new friend – and lost quite a number of old ones – at Old Trafford last weekend but against Milan they compressed into one move that ended with a misdirected shot by Emmanuel Eboué more pure football than Liverpool managed in 90 minutes against 10-man Inter.

First Arsenal sparred intriguingly with the older, more practical heads who secured revenge last spring for Liverpool's extraordinary comeback in Istanbul. Then they dared to be great before their years.

It is true they misfired around goal right up to the final moments when Emmanuel Adebayor picked out the crossbar rather than a gaping net but in terms of creativity and rhythm the journey between Anfield on Tuesday and the Emirates on Wednesday was one between famine and fertility.

Pragmatists, who now seem to exclude all others in the manning of the Benitez barricades, will argue that the manager of Liverpool got the job done and Arsenal's did not. But then we have to return to the question that has dominated the week. What really is the job? It has to be the developing of a team that, potentially, can win in any circumstances on any field. If this is indeed the guideline, Arsenal still score heavily over their Merseyside rivals.

They are, it has been made easy to forget by the brilliance that has taken them five points clear at the top of the Premier League, supposed to be in a season of transition, one in which some even doubted their ability to hang on to the European place that comes with a top four finish.

Much of the doubt rested on the belief that they would be lost without the inspiration of Thierry Henry, and some of that resurfaced this week when the old hero was producing an exquisitely trademarked finish for Barcelona against Celtic – while Adebayor was misplacing the killer touch that has been so vital to his young team's growth over the past few months.

There were always going to be such occasions. Henry was not likely to forget how to score subline goals from time to time. Adebayor wasn't going to turn into an unerring goal machine in a few months. However, the trade-off surely remains hugely in Arsenal's favour.

Henry's overwhelming influence in the team wasn't, after all, anywhere near as central to team performance as it had once been and, if we are looking for an example, his finishing in the Champions League final in Paris in 2006 was no less wayward than Adebayor's this week. In the Togolese striker's favour, strongly, is the fact that he gives so much weight and variety to his leadership of the forward line, something which, strictly speaking, Henry never did. Against Milan, Adebayor required Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta to resurrect so much of what had shaped down the years two of the greatest defenders the game has ever known.

Even as Liverpool congratulate themselves on the lead they take to Italy, it is difficult to recall any moments when they had marched impressively beyond some dismaying recent form, including the public relations disaster against Barnsley.

They outslugged a largely passive Inter who eventually lost their two central defenders and were required to play a man down for an hour, but if you took away the goals of a labouring Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard the lack of uplift was gnawing.

For Arsenal Alexander Hleb was some way from his most acute powers of penetration and Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini could never quite convert some passages of exciting promise into sustained control, but all of them announced superior talent. By comparison, Liverpool's Xabi Alonso was rooted on the bench against Inter. The difference between the attempted reach of the teams was simply immense. For periods in the second half Arsenal played as though the collective reputation of Kaka, Seedorf, Gatusso, Pirlo, Maldini and the young Brazilian virtuoso Pato, was not a challenge but a provocation.

In the wake of the Barnsley catastrophe, Benitez said his team were walking in the footsteps of Arsenal's latest starburst of team development. It was a secret he had kept entirely to himself – and even after victory over Inter remained impenetrable.

There can never have been such an enigma in English football, such a gap between week-in, week-out performance and potential achievement. Three European Cup finals in four years and possibly two victories would read for Benitez like the deeds of dynasty – and at a time when Sir Alex Ferguson craved his second win and Arsène Wenger his first.

Yet this week, when Fabregas found again some of the sharpest of his wit, the urge to crack the Benitez code suddenly seemed rather less compelling. It was enough to be seduced, if not entirely fulfilled, by what was happening before your eyes.

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