If one looks as this week-end’s results, the double header pitting Serie A vs. EPL teams in the UEFA Champions League’s First knock-out round this week, really doesn’t bid well for Arsenal and Liverpool. Indeed, the two Prem teams have suffered shock defeats in the FA Cup this Saturday, and one has to wonder in what state the two teams’ morale will be, when Milano cousins (Inter Milan and AC Milan) respectively come to visit Reds and Gunners on Tuesday/Wednesday.
Italian sports newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport takes an analytical look.
The Reds’ defeat against their modest Championship opponents Barnsley F.C. (which took place spectacularly in minute 93, after 90 minutes of repeated Liverpool scoring chances) cast some really dark shadows upon the team, not only for their much anticipated clash with Serie A leaders Inter Milan (victorious over Livorno this week-end, courtesy of two goals by Honduran striker David Suazo), but also for Rafa Benitez‘s season as a whole. The fate of the Spanish manager seems to, now more than ever, be hanging by a very thin thread… a thread which may not be able to support the added weight of an early Champions League elimination.
To make matters worse, the Reds’ already fragile environment is apparently also dealing with rumors of an impending ownership take-over, Tom Hicks and George Gillett being reportedly very close to selling the club to the ‘Dubai International Capital‘ company for an amount close to £400m (€530m). Since the news come from the ever-reliable News of the World publication, they ought to be taken with a grain of salt, but whether the rumor has foundation in truth or not, it certainly doesn’t help in tranquilizing the mood around Anfield Road. The Kop faithful really had their share of emotions this season, including the possible rumored arrival of Jürgen Klinsmann replacing Benitez, something which the Liverpool supporters really did not appreciate. Had it not been for the German manager’s preference towards Bayern Munich (he’ll be replacing Ottmar Hitzfeld at the end of the current season) in fact, it is very likely that the ex-Valencia boss’s tenure at Reds would already be over, an incident which futher contributed at increasing animosity between fanbase (openly supporting their manager on this occasion) and powers in charge at the club.
As a result, many have tagged the Reds’ next Champions League fixture as a sort of ‘make it or break it’ moment, something destined to right the wrongs of an otherwise fairly disappointing season. Going back to the embarassing elimination from the FA Cup, fans have been criticizing Benitez’s squad rotation policy for quite some time now, and the benching of keeper Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres (just back from injury), as well as the utilization of Steven Gerrard only in the final quarter, didn’t sit too well with many of the Anfield faithful. “When you lose, it is always difficult to find an explanation,” declared the Spanish coach, “even though it is really frustrating not to have been able to score after all the chances we created. I am still shocked and very disappointed, but now we must concentrate on Inter Milan, because we must not fail“.
Speaking of Inter Milan, there’s someone of the Nerazzurri roster who’s been waiting for this match for quite some time now, two years and a half to be precise. May 25, 2005 is a date that still burns in the mind of Hernan Crespo, the day when his AC Milan team went from a 3-0 first half lead to a 3-3 full time scoreline, followed by a penalty shootout loss at the hands of Steven Gerrard & friends. “I wanted to die. I couldn’t believe they turned around a 0-3 deficit” said the Argentine striker to the Sunday Mirror. “I even had a great match and scored two goals, but I still ended up one step short of the trophy. I’d like to get my revenge now.” Crespo added: “Liverpool are a cup team. They are not doing well in the Premier League, but in domestic and European cup competitions they have managed to go far. What they offer with their game is not on the same level as Arsenal, but it is very effective in knockout competition.” And he insists that Inter will make no assumptions of superiority this week: “We’re not favourites at all. The key will be the away game. We need a good result at Anfield. Otherwise they will feel too comfortable when they come to Milan.”
From Manchester United to AC Milan, Arsenal has quite a week planned. For Gunners fans worldwide however, one can only hope that Wednesday’s match will go slightly better than the 4-0 thumping their team suffered vs. the Red Devils this week-end. Arsène Wenger’s team may very well be leading the Premier League standings and having a brilliant season so far, they were absolute shadows of themselves this week-end vs. Manchester United. Could it be perhaps, the entire team was thinking more about their European Cup match and considerably lost their concentration in the domestic cup? After all, hasn’t Wenger himself confessed the Champions League is his most sought-after objective, more than any other trophy this year?
For Champions League veteran Clarence Seedorf (the only player so far, to have won the trophy with 3 different teams, Ajax, Real Madrid, and AC Milan, and 4 times in total), “being unable to handle pressure under particular circumstances” is a weakness that the young Arsenal team may very well have to pay for this week. Sunday Mirror interviewed the Dutch midfielder. “In my view” said Seedorf, “although Arsenal are one of the best teams in Europe and have been playing very well lately, they lack experience. We are champions of Europe and we have won this competition five times. We know how to handle these occasions. We have experience and we also have cunning, especially when it comes to ties over two legs“.
Arsenal’s starting line-up will probably feature only three players over the age of 26 whereas Carlo Ancelotti’s “oldies” are likely to contain only one under 28 – someone by the name of Kaka. Seedorf is 31, Filippo Inzaghi is 34 and Paolo Maldini is still going strong at 39. “Age is important but in a good way,” said Seedorf. “I am in my 12th year in the Champions League but I feel as good as I did when I won my first winner’s medal at 19 with Ajax.”
Tactically, Seedorf expects the midfield battle to be a key for this match: “Cesc Fabregas is one of the best midfielders in the world. But we have quite a few world-class midfielders, including Rino Gattuso. I think Fabregas will find it tough up against him.” He added: “Arsenal have a great record at home, but the second leg being in the San Siro will be to our advantage. (…) It was hard to play against Liverpool in last season’s final, but Arsenal will present a different challenge. They will think they will have a chance against us, especially with Ronaldo being injured. That is a big loss for us. However we’ve got Kaka, who is the best player in the world – and he still hasn’t reached his maximum!”
Speaking of Ronaldo, the Rossoneri may very well take advantage of their away match to London to kill two birds with one stone. The first bird being a good result at Emirates Stadium, obviously. The second bird will be trying to find a replacement for the very-long-term injured Ronaldo, the main target being former club glory Andriy Shevchenko. Indeed, according to the Sunday Express, Milan negotiatiors are supposed to meet with Chelsea representatives to discuss the Ukrainian striker’s transfer options, a transfer which the player himself would certainly appreciate given the recent arrival of Nicolas Anelka to Stamford Bridge.