Wenger and Benitez face fixture chaos after cup tie is postponed

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The Independent Online

Liverpool's Rafael Benitez and Arsenal's Arsène Wenger were united in their condemnation of the referee Martin Atkinson after his decision to postpone last night's Carling Cup quarter-final at Anfield consigned both clubs to fixture chaos.

The two managers were adamant that the first of two cup meetings between the teams should have gone ahead despite heavy fog that initially forced Arsenal to reschedule their flight from Luton to Stansted Airport, and then divert their landing from Liverpool John Lennon Airport to Blackpool International.

However, Atkinson insisted he had no alternative after a second pitch inspection confirmed his assistants could not see to the other side of the Anfield pitch. "From the stands you could not see the full pitch and it may have been impossible for one of my assistants to make a clear judgement on a decision that could have decided the outcome of the game," said the referee, who made his call one hour before kick-off and with 5,200 supporters already inside the stadium.

His opinion was contested by Benitez, who had close friends over from Spain for the game and later walked up to the back of the Anfield stands to assess Atkinson's claims. "We must respect the referee but we don't agree with him," he countered. "In our opinion, we could have played. The referee told us you couldn't see the different colours clearly but from the halfway line you could see the goal so we should have played. I was surprised because this morning we were training in worse conditions."

"The pitch was playable," added Wenger. "But we were unable to influence the decision of the referee. It is very disappointing because both teams wanted to play and the young players had a good opportunity."

The postponement presents a logistical nightmare for Liverpool and Arsenal, who meet in the third round of the FA Cup on 6 January and must now rearrange their Carling Cup tie for the week scheduled for the first leg of the semi-finals, 9 or 10 January. The tie could not be put back 24 hours until tonight due to police and stewarding issues, and the clubs will face further congestion if their FA Cup tie goes to a replay and consequently delays the second leg of the Carling Cup semi-final until the end of next month or possibly even the beginning of February.

"At the moment we don't know when we would replay the FA Cup game if we draw at Anfield," said Benitez, who left the referee's room at Anfield shaking his head in protest at Atkinson's decision. "Maybe we will have to play for both cups on the same afternoon!"

Last night was the first time a game had been postponed at Anfield since 1997 and, to the further annoyance of Rick Parry and David Dein, the respective chief executives of Liverpool and Arsenal who appealed for Atkinson to reconsider his decision, visibility had improved by the time kick-off arrived.

In the absence of a game Benitez ordered his players to conduct an impromptu training session on the Anfield pitch but the predicament was much worse for Wenger and Arsenal. Unable to fly back to London due to the prevailing fog in the North-West, or take a train from Liverpool Lime Street to the capital, the Gunners had to return home via coach.

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