Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Full-Time Thoughts--Arsenal vs. Liverpool

It’s all over in North London and after the first leg, Arsenal and Liverpool are level 1-1 on aggregate and will settle things at Anfield in six nights’ time. Briefly, here’s what I thought of today’s game:

• First of all, it should be said, and I know I’m stating the obvious, that this was a proper game of soccer. Both teams laid it all on the line and we saw a little bit of everything, from goal-line clearances, good, clean challenges, two well-crafted goals, and solid refereeing.

• Liverpool were extremely fortunate to get out of the Emirates with a 1-1 draw, and now they’ll head home in command of the tie. Arsenal had more chances and dominated possession in the second half, but couldn’t capitalize. They huffed and huffed, but couldn’t blow the Liverpool house down.

• William Gallas and Dirk Kuyt were terrific for their respective sides. Gallas compeletely neutralized the world’s most in-form striker at the moment, Fernando Torres, and was everywhere in the back for Arsenal. You’ll never hear anyone say Kuyt has a lot of natural talent and skill, but he’s the hardest worker on the field whenever he plays and Liverpool needed every ounce of his determination and energy today. Oh yeah, and he scored the Reds’ goal. Not too shabby.

• The Dutch referee, Pieter Vink, made the correct decision in not awarding a penalty for the Kuyt/Hleb incident in the second half. Sure, Kuyt had his arms on Hleb, but the Belorussian went down pretty easily and to be honest, wasn’t looking to score as much as he was looking for a penalty. I will guarantee you that there are Premiership referees who would’ve given a PK, because I’ve certainly seen them give penalties for less, but more so because they tend to give in to home crowds on questionable calls. Vink was looking right at the situation and had a clear view of it; he made the decision, and that’s it, end of story. It’s a talking point, but that’s all it is.

• Bringing Yossi Benayoun on for Ryan Babel was a complete waste of a substitution. Benayoun is a central midfielder; I don’t care that he's played on the wing this season for Liverpool, he’s a natural central midfielder. He doesn’t offer you pace and two-footed ability like Babel does, and Kolo Toure’s job on the right side became that much easier when Benayoun was brought into the game.

• Other than his run to set up Kuyt’s goal, Steven Gerrard really didn’t have much of an impact on the game. He made a couple of nice passes and won a couple of corner kicks, but I just didn’t see the same player who’s made his reputation off thriving on European nights. He’ll have to come up big for Liverpool next Tuesday night.

• On the other hand, Arsenal’s talisman, Cesc Fabregas, didn’t have a particularly good game either. Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso really limited the amount of time Fabregas had on the ball and closed him down very well. His long balls, which he’s known for, were constantly being hit 4-5 yards past where they needed to be to give Adebayor, van Persie, and Bendtner a chance to do what they do best: score goals.

• I don’t want to hear any more plugs from ESPN to take part in Derek Rae's chat session on ESPN Soccernet; I like the guy a lot and think the world of him as a play-by-play man, but I have no interest. Thanks anyway.

• As I said, Liverpool now controls their own destiny. A 0-0 draw next week will suit them just fine, and the 12th man that is the crowd at Anfield will be roaring. Can Arsenal’s inexperienced (not young) team, at least on the European stage, cope with it? We’ll see.

It will be very interesting to see the lineups that Arsene Wenger and Rafa Benitez field for their league game this weekend. Arsenal needs every single point that they can get as they’re trying to hunt down Manchester United for the league title, while Liverpool are seemingly secure in 4th place. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Benitez opts to rest Torres, and possibly Carragher and/or Gerrard, to have them all 100% for the second leg, but Wenger has to go with a full-strength team because Arsenal likely needs to win the rest of their Premiership games.

In today’s other Champions League game, Turkish side Fenerbahçe made me look good on my prediction yesterday by beating Chelsea at home 2-1. I don’t think they’ll be able to hold that lead at Stamford Bridge next week, but I’ve been very impressed with Fenerbahçe’s run in this competition and they’ve given their fans a lot to cheer about. They’ve put Turkish soccer on the map, and in the southeastern Europe/Balkan region, that league is clearly tops.

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