Wenger still riled over Babel 'dive'

Arsenal manager relives vital European penalty ahead of Liverpool's visit
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The Independent Football

At the time Arsène Wenger couched his disappointment by claiming the hotly disputed penalty, that arguably ended Arsenal's campaign last season, dumping them out of the Champions League and deflating their title challenge, was "dodgy". Yesterday, and in the build up to tomorrow's home Premier League fixture with Liverpool, the first time the two sides have met since that highly charged April evening, the Arsenal manager went further by accusing Ryan Babel of taking a "dive" to con the referee, Peter Frojdfeldt.

"He did it well," Wenger said drily of Babel's actions in tumbling to the turf after being challenged by Kolo Touré. "At home [in the first leg] we had a penalty that wasn't given and the one up there [at Anfield] was a dive. You can say that because Kolo didn't touch him," he claimed before adding of the incident, after agreeing that his own players, notably Emmanuel Eboué, have been guilty of trying to fool officials in the past: "[But] I'm over it. It happens. In football that's why everyone becomes crazy because it's not [as straightforward] as running."

It should be remembered that Babel vehemently denied cheating to gain the 86th-minute award – which gave Liverpool a 3-2 lead (they went on to win 4-2 and 5-3 on aggregate) – and that Frojdfeldt stood by the decision.

It meant that Wenger's words served to raise the temperature even higher for an encounter that has taken on increasingly vital importance for both clubs.

The Champions League tie, which saw Liverpool go through to the semi-finals, sandwiched a league match which ended in a draw, with Wenger again bemoaning a lack of good fortune. "In the last seconds we had a fantastic chance [through Alexander Hleb] to win the game. Last season we had some bad luck after back luck," he said yesterday.

Maybe he does protest too much. After all, a lack of fortune is not, in all honesty, the best of excuses when it comes to assessing something as relentless and taxing as a nine-month campaign although, in fairness to Wenger, he also added that dealing with "bad luck" is "part of the quality of a team".

That is something that, constantly, has been in question this season although Wenger sharply dismissed the assessments of both the Tottenham Hotspur manager Harry Redknapp and Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand that Arsenal – after five league losses – were out of contention and the title race was down to three clubs – Chelsea, Liverpool and United.

"Let them talk and play and show that we are wrong," Wenger said emphatically. "You can talk as long as you want." An added edge to tomorrow's encounter is that Arsenal and Liverpool have both beaten United and Chelsea this season.

A third victory against another of the so-called "big four" for either would cap a remarkable run with Wenger choosing to use the word "compulsory" when asked whether his team needed to win this one.

"It is an opportunity for us to catch them which we want to take," he said, even though victory would still leave Arsenal five points adrift of the league leaders.

"At the moment the race is still very tight because it looks for me for the first time in six or seven years that the number of points for the winner of this league will be much lower than usual because everybody drops points against everybody," Wenger reasoned. "Liverpool and Chelsea have dropped many points at home which means the winner of this league will not get over 80 points." Indeed he has set a target of 78 to land the title.

For Wenger there was also the perennial – because it is so relevant – question of why his team performs against the "bigger" teams and then struggles when faced by lesser opponents.

For Arsenal, it is a question of not dealing with a more direct style, he admitted, but also a failure in "concentration" which he now, after bitter experience, hopes to have remedied.

For the club itself there is also turmoil off the pitch. A board of directors which is urging Wenger to spend next month – public knowledge that clearly irritates the manager – is also dealing with the culling of two of its number, and two of the oldest names at the club, with Nina Bracewell-Smith and Richard Carr removed. As ever Wenger, having anticipated the questioning, had a ready-made response. "What is important in a football club is the directors do not speak about technique and that I do not speak about shares," he said.

His opposite number tomorrow, Rafael Benitez, knows all about having to comment on such issues given the uncertainty at Liverpool in recent years, although that has reached a period of relative calm partly because the financial crisis has made sellers and buyers hesitate. The Spaniard will be in the dugout tomorrow but has not been at Liverpool's training ground at Melwood this week as he recovers from the procedure to remove a kidney stone.

Arsenal have dedicated tomorrow's match to its charity of the season, the Teenage Cancer Trust. Players and directors will donate a day's wages. More information is available on www.beagoonerbeagiver.org