Liverpool Echo 29 October 2007 (sorry I just found it... but a good reading)
ACCORDING to general consensus, Arsenal are currently playing football from another planet.
Style, verve, imagination, creativity, cutting edge, individual brilliance and collective cohesion. You name it, they've got it. But yesterday, Liverpool - and a Liverpool side apparently in crisis, no less - came within 10 minutes of beating a team which Pepe Reina later described as one of the best he has ever played against. And when you think of some of the teams the Spanish stopper has faced in recent seasons - AC Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea, to name but five – that is one hell of a compliment. It is easy to see why the Gunners are currently the critics' choice and if they carry on performing like they did at Anfield then there is every likelihood that they will be at the front of the queue when Premiership winners' medals are handed out at the end of the season. But had it not been for Liverpool's injury curse striking again we might today be talking of a famous victory for Rafa Benitez's men because, until abductor muscles twinged and metatarsals cracked, they looked on course to deny Arsenal a share of the spoils. The North Londoners played the better football throughout what was a hugely entertaining clash, but it takes a lot more than pretty passing to win matches in England, and at times their strict adherence to the beautiful game left them lacking the kind of cutting edge that Liverpool had. Reina may well have been impressed by what he saw of Arsenal but, in truth, he was far from being the busier of the two keepers with Almunia called into action far more often than his compatriot prior to Liverpool's injuries kicking in. Both Steven Gerrard and Peter Crouch were thwarted by outstanding saves which could have doubled the lead Liverpool had established when the captain came up with the kind of strike befitting his 400th appearance in a red shirt. Before this game, Benitez had spoken glowingly of Gerrard's return to form, describing him as "back to his best" and telling anyone who would care to listen that after a lean period his star midfielder was now ready to hit the heights again. So much so that when the Reds manager worked out his tactics for this clash his whole game plan was based on coming up with a set-up which gave Gerrard the freedom to express himself and release him into the positions from which he can cause most danger. The 'wingless wonders' may have been a Sir Alf Ramsey creation in 1966, but lacking genuine wingers of his own Benitez came up with his own version of that masterplan with Gerrard playing just behind Torres, with Voronin and Kuyt either side. In the first half, Gerrard was the star performer, flourishing in the space the system afforded him and scoring a typically wonderful goal from a free kick after Alonso had been felled on the edge of the box by Fabregas. At this stage, Arsenal were threatening in possession without ever really looking like they were about to make the breakthrough, bringing back memories of a certain Houllierism when the French boss uttered the immortal words: "You keep the ball and we’ll keep the result." The problem with that kind of attitude is possession really is nine tenths of the law in football and the longer Arsenal kept the ball the more likely it became that they would equalise, and the less likely it became that Liverpool would grab a decisive second goal. And so it proved with 80 minutes on the clock when Hleb held the ball long enough for Fabregas to break free of the Reds back line before picking him out with a wonderfully weighted pass which the Spaniard calmly poked past Reina. It was a goal that had been coming since Alonso limped off the pitch with a recurrence of his metatarsal injury and it was a goal that Arsenal undoubtedly deserved. They could even have won the game had either Fabregas or Bendtner produced more controlled finishes after shots had come back off the woodwork. Defeat would have been cruel on Liverpool, though, as whatever they lacked in technical ability and flair they more than made up for with grit, determination and no little passion. Javier Mascherano was the embodiment of this spirit, covering every blade of grass and putting in tackle after tackle until injury reduced his role to that of a virtual passenger. This is typical of Liverpool's season. Every time they seem to be making progress another important player picks up a knock and one step forward is followed by two steps back. It is no coincidence that when everyone was fit at the start of the season they were playing some fantastic football, looking to all the world like a team that was finally ready to challenge for the title. But then Alonso and Daniel Agger were both struck by the curse of the metatarsal and, all of a sudden, they stalled. Injuries are part and parcel of the season for every club, of course, but rarely can a side have suffered so many injuries to so many key performers in such a short space of time. This has played havoc with the cohesion of the side and left Benitez scratching his head wondering if a lack of fit players will force him to temporarily abandon his beloved rotation policy. With a dwindling number of fit players to choose from Benitez will soon be forced into reverting to that old Shankly adage of "same team as last year", only it will be out of necessity, rather than choice. But he can take great heart from the fact that when he needed his players to stand up and be counted they did just that and, with a bit more luck, it might just have been good enough to secure all three points.