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Saturday, April 12, 2008
Liverpool exposed Arsenal's weaknesses in real belter
LONDON — A victory for substance over style, strength over style, power over passing — call it what you want, but it is Liverpool not Arsenal which will play Chelsea in the Champions League semifinals.
If there has been a better, more exciting European tie than the quarterfinal, second-leg at Anfield which Liverpool won 4-2, this observer has not seen it.
As the dust settles on a titanic encounter it is still difficult to fully understand why Liverpool rather than Arsenal is in the last four. That is the joy of football — the wonderful inexplicable reason for success or failure.
In the opening 25 minutes Arsenal played total football — totally in control, its movement so fast and precise it was almost as if the television images had been sped up.
Liverpool was grateful for even a throw-in, yet in the final reckoning Arsenal lost 4-2, and 5-3 on aggregate.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger will never betray his beliefs and philosophy. No trophy for three years will not see Arsenal change the way it plays.
What Wenger must do is to ensure his version of the beautiful game has a happy ending. The fans who worship the Frenchman would sacrifice some style for success.
In the first game, Arsenal was denied an obvious penalty to give it a chance of making it 2-1.
At Anfield, Wenger complained about the 86th-minute penalty awarded with the score 2-2 and Arsenal ahead on away goals, when Gunners defender Kolo Toure tussled with Ryan Babel, Steven Gerrard expertly converting the spot-kick.
It was nowhere near as clear-cut a penalty as when Dirk Kuyt tugged Alexander Hleb's arm at Emirates Stadium the previous week, but Toure was ill-advised to touch Babel in the penalty area.
Toure gave the referee, Peter Frojdfedt, the opportunity to award a penalty, which he did. It was not an obvious penalty, but neither was it an injustice.
Babel's subsequent goal was irrelevant. The penalty was in effect the decisive goal.
Liverpool defies football logic. Frustratingly inconsistent in the Premier League, it is on course for its third appearance in the Champions League final in four years.
It was outplayed by Arsenal but won because of its desire, its refusal to accept defeat, its passion and that of the crowd, fewer individual errors and Fernando Torres' clinical finishing.
Torres had a poor game at Anfield, but when Philippe Senderos gave him a split second too much time, the Spaniard scored with a beauty of a shot.
Wenger must know he has the quality but not the quantity. Arsenal has less strength in depth than Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool.
Senderos is a liability and a more reliable center-back should have been signed as a defensive option.
Former Arsenal manager George Graham spoke for most Gunners supporters when he said of Senderos, at fault for Liverpool's first two goals at Anfield: "He's not good enough. For three-quarters of the games Arsenal plays in the Premier League, Senderos is capable. But when you get to the top level in Europe you need top-class defenders.
"When Sami Hyypia scored from a header it was a basic error by Senderos. Given the number of goals that are scored in this manner I don't know why teams don't work week-in, week-out on both scoring from set-pieces and defending them.
"For 25 minutes, Arsenal were absolutely fantastic, got the goal they wanted but poor defending from a set-piece allowed Liverpool back.
"I don't think my side would have conceded four, but it was just one of those nights."
Graham also believes Arsene Wenger needs to strengthen his squad if the Gunners are to end a run of three trophy-less seasons.
He said: "Arsenal has run out of steam, dropping points against teams like Wigan, Birmingham and Middlesbrough. Key players like Cesc Fabregas look jaded. They don't have a strong enough squad, while Robin van Persie is on the treatment table too much for me.
"They'll have to bring in new players in the summer. They need players who are strong physically and mentally for the really big games."
For all Fabregas' class, he does not give the midfield the leadership or dynamism Patrick Vieira did. Wenger has been a reluctant spender, but the checkbook must come out this summer. Arsenal does not have a goal scorer in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo, Didier Drogba or Torres.
More immediately, midfielder Mathieu Flamini has been ruled out for three weeks with an ankle injury.
Gilberto will replace the Frenchman for Sunday's Premier League game against United at Old Trafford.
Arsenal is third in the table, six points behind leader United, and needs to win to stay in the title race.
"It is a big blow but Gilberto has a lot of quality and experience," said Wenger. "Gilberto can come in and help the team recover and focus."
LIVERPOOL'S success comes despite, not because of, the club's American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who are a modern-day version of the two grumpy old men in "The Muppets."
A millionaire businessman Hicks may be, but in English football he clearly has much to learn, not least about public relations.
Hicks has written an open letter to the club's respected chief executive, Rick Parry, calling for his resignation.
The more accepted way to ask a top executive to step down would be in the boardroom rather than a public letter, but Hicks has his own agenda.
Hicks feels that Parry is siding with co-owner Gillett in the club's ongoing power struggle.
Christopher Davies writes about the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.