Liverpool edging closer to holy grail, says Lee

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The Independent Football

Arsenal may be meeting Liverpool this afternoon at a time when share transactions and bank loans are the prime concern in the respective boardrooms but, as ever, the numbers concerning players, managers and supporters are those achieved on the pitch, which in this case happen to be particularly interesting ones.

Unusually among matches between the acknowledged Big Four (we are not including Aston Villa yet, if Martin O'Neill will pardon us), this one often produces a high score for one side or the other. Arsène Wenger's first experience of the fixture was a 4-2 League Cup defeat back in the days when he still fielded a first team in that competition. Subsequently, Wenger has lost 4-0 (twice), 4-1 and4-2, as well as winning 4-2 and 6-3, that last game inscribed in Gooners folklore as Julio "The Beast" Baptista's match.

Perhaps the explanation is that the two teams are at the same time unpredictable and demonstrably less sound defensively than Chelsea or Manchester United. Arsenal fans are either intrigued or frustrated by not knowing which side will turn up for a given game: the smooth-passing, hard-running collective who remember to finish off all the beautiful work with a shot at goal from time to time; or the lackadaisical, error-prone gang liable to ruin any good work with a gaffe at either end of the pitch.

When they are good – as in this season's classic against United – they are very, very good; and when they are bad, even Wenger sometimes finds it difficult to defend them, as has sometimes been the case in a run of only five goals in eight games – half of them lost – since United and Wigan were swept away at the start of last month.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have been struggling to assert their authority at Anfield while picking off teams such as Blackburn, PSV Eindhoven and Bolton on the break away from home. Not that they find it easier on their travels, the assistant manager, Sammy Lee, insisted while substituting for Rafa Benitez at Friday's weekly media conference.

The accent may be different – pure Scouse – and the delivery more Jamie Carragher velocity than the Spaniard's, but Lee has been a Liverpool man long enough not to insult the club's supporters by suggesting that playing at Anfield was anything less than football heaven.

On the wall of the room in which he was speaking was a long quote from Johan Cruyff extolling the virtues of the Anfield crowd, their famous anthem and what the Dutch master claimed was a unique bond with the team unmatched anywhere. Cruyff must have been as surprised as anyone by successive home draws with Fulham, West Ham and Hull.

Lee said: "No one's happy at losing points, be it home or away, but I wouldn't say we're happierplaying away. We know what teams are going to do when they come to us because we do our homework as well."

Long gone are the days when tactical preparation consisted of Bill Shankly lining the oppos-ing players up on a Subbuteo pitch and then sweeping them to the floor with one dismissive flourish. Even in Lee's time as a Liverpool midfielder, from 1976 to 1986, Boot Room tactics were evolving beyond that. From his position as second-in-command since returning to the club last summer after an unsuccessful spell in charge of Bolton, he asserted that Benitez has gone much further.

"I've had the good fortune to work with a number of good managers but what stands out is his attention to detail, which is phenomenal," Lee said. "Diet, size of training pitches, footwear, kit, travel, hotels, opposition, everything. The attention to detail is key and makes the difference between good managers and great managers. He's very innovative. Very proactive too: you may need to tweak something in a game and that takes knowledge. He's got great know-ledge of the game. Sometimes it's just a little attention to detailthat may be the difference between winning and losing."

Benitez's record against Ars-enal is about even, both in terms of individual games and League positions. Twice he has finished higher in the table – once by as many as 15 points – and twice behind, while reaching two Champions' League finals to Wenger's one. The chances of improving that European record were not harmed for eitherclub by Friday's draw for the knockout stage, pitting Benitez against his ailing compatriots Real Madrid and Arsenal against Roma.

In best Liverpool fashion, however, Lee was not at all keen to talk about a tie that will not take place for two months. If the Champions' League has any relevance this weekend, it will only be in reminding the club of last season's quarter-final, in which they recovered after conceding the opening goal at the Emirates, equalising through Dirk Kuyt – whose confidence has never wavered since that day – then winning an epic second leg 4-2.

For someone who won three successive League titles with Liverpool in a period when backing anyone else was a definition of optimism, it must be a matter of incomprehension that there has not been one since 1990.

They lead the table after 17 games, and Lee knows this is as good a chance as any: "We know what's gone on before. We've got five points more this season, we were fourth or fifth and now we're first. We've never made any false promises but we're closer."

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