07 April 2008

Same old story as Arsenal draw with Liverpool

By Clive Tyldesley
Last Updated: 3:24am BST 07/04/2008
Arsenal (0) 1 Liverpool (1) 1

After playing out their
third 1-1 draw of the season, Arsenal and Liverpool may be inclined to rest their weary legs and get straight down to the penalty shoot-out at Anfield tomorrow. Half the likely cast for the second act of their Champions League drama missed Saturday's rehearsal, but it was still the same old storyline. Liverpool led, Arsenal equalised, Arsene Wenger pleaded for a penalty. He may finally get his wish around ten'o'clock tomorrow night.
Wenger's stubborn claim that Arsenal are still in the championship race is starting to look as forlorn as his penalty appeals. Six weeks ago, his team left the scene of Eduardo's horrific injury at Birmingham with a six-point title lead. They have not only dropped 13 points in seven games since then, they have lost much of their rhythm and relish too. The European win in Milan was the only recent reminder of the beautiful game with which Arsenal lit up the autumn and winter. Their whole season is on the line tomorrow.
A week ago, Wenger said this Liverpool trilogy and the game at Old Trafford that follows it next weekend represent his "highest challenge". So far, he and his tired team have come up agonisingly short. So agonising that Wenger's touchline manner became as maniacal as that of Rafa Benitez in the closing stages of Saturday's game. Both appeared before the Match of the Day cameras looking like disaster survivors with ties loosened and nerves tightened. They would be well advised to wear heart monitors tomorrow evening.
Potential is becoming a dirty word at both clubs. Wenger and Benitez have each won special places in the hearts of their club's supporters, but neither can quite match the might and money of Manchester United and Chelsea in the Premier League of late. Now, they must fight a final eliminator to challenge the two English heavyweights, and Barcelona besides, for a shot at the European title. Only one of them can still be a contender come Wednesday morning.
The festering frustrations among Arsenal fans spilled over when Emmanuel Eboue was booked for a rash challenge midway through the second-half on Saturday. "Send him off!" shouted one disgruntled supporter. Eboue has become the main target for the general dissatisfaction with the depth of a squad that Wenger has the financial resources to strengthen significantly. The manager's prudence is just beginning to affect his popularity. His "highest challenge" may be how well and how much he spends this coming summer.
The latest Arsenal penalty claim was again justified. Lucas Leiva got a sneaky handful of Cesc Fabregas's shirt during a late skirmish but there was a jaded desperation about Arsenal by then. They have found themselves chasing too many games this season. Six of their last seven goals have come from set-pieces, and the other was a scrambled own goal. They are getting by on spirit rather than style. Alexander Hleb had a glimpse of goal in the final frantic seconds, but Liverpool's Andriy Voronin wasted the best two openings of the last ten minutes.
The first-half resembled the Peter Crouch testimonial match. The unsettled Liverpool forward was the only player able to raise his game above the lunchtime flatness, leading the line with energy and no little skill.
Just before the break, Crouch turned William Gallas and bounced a shot beyond Manuel Almunia's dive to remind any interested parties of his unique array of credentials. Benitez has offered him a new contract, but fewer and fewer opportunities to earn his money.
"Before, when he was rotating, at least I was getting a game here and there, but the manager's stuck with a formation that seems to be working now," said Crouch. "I've got to be realistic, and if I want to have any aspirations of playing for England or furthering my career, then I have to be playing. It's pretty clear I won't start on Tuesday. It can be disheartening."
As an audition for tomorrow's second leg, the match emphasised how inspirational Jamie Carragher can be in his favoured central defensive role, but Benitez won't make many, if any changes from the first encounter.
With Robin van Persie unlikely to be fit, there was another opportunity for Theo Walcott to push his claims. But the teenager's contributions were fitful and timid. Nicklas Bendtner headed a fine equaliser from a Fabregas free-kick, but a recall for Abou Diaby seems more likely, with Hleb playing more centrally.
Talking point
The Colorado snows and the British credit crunch may just have worked in Liverpool's favour. Last week's ownership summit was cancelled because George Gillett was unable to fly out of north America. Now, co-owner Tom Hicks is believed to be returning home after trying to raise new capital.
If the two had appeared tomorrow, the likely protests may have proved a genuine distraction. When Arsenal won at Anfield in the FA Cup last season, the game itself was upstaged by the Kop's support for the Hillsborough victims.


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