Intense battling, never-ending emotion, and full-blown spectacle were the big trademarks of Tuesday night’s Anfield Road fixture, a great match-up opposing Liverpool and Arsenal for the third time in less than 8 days, for the second leg of the 2007-08 UEFA Champions League Quarter-Finals.
At the end of goal-laden 90 minutes, the team advancing will be be Rafa’s Reds, who overcame two aggregate losing scorelines to pull ahead of Wenger’s boys and conquer their ticket to the Semi-Finals, thanks to an 86th minute Steven Gerrard penalty kick. In stoppage time, Liverpool’s fourth goal by Ryan Babel made the victory all the more sweeter for Benitez and The Kop, leaving Reds to face Blues in two weeks’ time, thanks to Chelsea’s concurrent 2-0 win over Fenerbahce at Stamford Bridge. With Manchester United in good position over Roma tomorrow, Premier League presence in the Semi-Finals is assured.
Tactically, Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez suprised everyone, as the starting line-ups for today’s match were unveiled: Peter Crouch was getting the start over Lucas Leiva, thus reverting the team into a 4-4-2 formation and Fernando “El Niño” Torres partnering up with the tall English forward. On the other side, Arsène Wenger stuck to his plans with the announced 4-4-1-1 formation, with Alexander Hleb operating behind lone striker Emmanuel Adebayor.
The match started with a very positive attitude from the visitors, as Arsenal were openly attacking their hosts with great determination and energy. The majority of the chances came on the Gunners’ side, nothing extraordinary mind you, but a precursor for things to come. Indeed in minute 13, Arsenal grabbed the lead of the match: shifting the ball from left wing to right, the sphere eventually landed to Hleb who, spotting the run of Abou Diaby inside the box, slid the ball towards the French midfielder. Diaby took one touch towards the goal line, and slammed a powerful strike towards Reina’s first post: the Spanish keeper touched with his knee, but the shot overpowered him and entered the net. 1-0 Arsenal.
For Benitez’s team this was a pretty big punch in the gut, and Liverpool had some tough times getting re-organized after the Arsenal opener. Around the half hour mark however, came Sami Hyppiä‘s useful equalizer: Steven Gerrard’s deep corner was met by a towering header from the Finnish defender, that left Almunia and Fàbregas (covering the far post) no chance. 1-1. This effectively put the aggregate score to a perfect tie, and also allowed Liverpool to progressively get back into the game playmaking-wise, thanks also to Mathieu Flamini’s injury in the 42nd (he was replaced by Gilberto Silva).
The first half thus ended on a tied score, and much like everyone would expect, the match restarted with the display of an even more determined Liverpool side. The match suddenly became less tactical and a lot more physical, as the midfield battle intensified with a few robust (sometimes rough) challenges à la Premier League. The deadlock was however suddenly lifted in the 69th, when Fernando Torres produced yet another wonder-strike from his bag of tricks. Receiving a headed flick from Peter Crouch, ‘El Niño’controlled the ball, turned around and slammed a powerful drive onto Almunia’s far corner of the goal. Great stuff all in one motion, and 2-1 Liverpool.
It was time for Arsène Wenger to gamble: the Arsenal manager substituted Emmanuel Eboué and Abou Diaby for the more offensive Theo Walcott and Robin Van Persie. This revitalized the Gunners’ striking force, who immediately obtained a golden chance with Adebayor, right in front of the Liverpool net! Unfortunately instead of cooly controlling the ball around the Spanish keeper, the Togolese striker attempted an on-the-run instep shot over Reina, and thus a very good chance went begging for Arsenal as the shot trickled wide!
At this point, Benitez decided to inject more speed in his counter-attacks by substituting Peter Crouch with Ryan Babel, but the move seemed to have instantaneously the opposite effect: in minute 83, Theo Walcott recovered the ball outside his own box and invented a 80-yard run that can only be defined as ‘fantastic’: clearing one, then two, then three, then four Liverpool players in quick succession, the England international then comfortably set up Emmanuel Adebayor in front of the net, for the easy tap-in. 2-2 and Arsenal ahead on aggregate!
The visitors’ joy however lasted less than a minute: just after the kick-off, Liverpool angrily pushed forward through Ryan Babel and obtained a penalty kick, as the Dutch winger was brought down by Kolo Touré inside the box. In all honesty, the foul started outside the box and then continued inside, but in all cases that was a very tough penalty to concede for Wenger and his men. Steven Gerrard stepped up to do the honours, and made no mistake to put his team back in the lead. 3-2 Liverpool!
The icing on Liverpool’s cake came in the second minute of stoppage time, when with the entire Arsenal team pushing forward, Dirk Kuyt set up Ryan Babel for the lone counter-attack: the Dutch player made a speedy run to beat Fàbregas to the ball, then tapped the ball out of Almunia’s reach on the first post. 4-2 Liverpool.
At the end of the 90 minutes, the Liverpool Reds were through to the Semi-finals but the real winner at Anfield tonight, without any shadow of a doubt, was entertainment.
|GOALSCORERS: 13’ Diaby (A), 30’ Hyypiä (L), 69’ F.Torres (L), 84’ Adebayor (A), 86’ pen. Gerrard (L), 92’ Babel (L)|
|LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Reina – Carragher, Hyypiä, Skrtel, Aurelio – Kuyt, Mascherano, Xabi Alonso, Gerrard – F.Torres (87’ Riise), Crouch (78’ Babel). (bench: Itandje, Arbeloa, Lucas Leiva, Benayoun, Voronin) Coach: Benitez.|
|ARSENAL (4-4-1-1): Almunia – Touré, Gallas, Senderos, Clichy – Eboué (73’ Walcott), Fàbregas, Diaby (73’ Van Persie), Flamini (42’ Gilberto Silva) – Hleb – Adebayor. (bench: Lehmann, Hoyte, A.Song, Bendtner) Coach: Wenger.|