It can be a frustrating process watching Arsenal play and last night’s game was certainly that. Despite dominating possession and making enough clear-cut chances to win the match, Arsene Wenger’s side were held to a 1-1 draw by Liverpool in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie.
The home side dominated the early exchanges and were rewarded with a 23rd minute opener when Emmanuel Adebayor headed home a neat corner from Robin van Persie, but conceded just three minutes later when Steven Gerrard ghosted past Emmanuel Eboue and Kolo Toure before setting up Dirk Kuyt with the leveller. In the second half Arsenal were denied a clear penalty when Kuyt tugged down Alexandr Hleb while Cesc Fabregas was denied a certain goal when his goalbound shot was comically (if you were anything but an Arsenal supporter, of course) blocked on the line by substitute Nicklas Bendtner.
So, it ended at 1-1 and despite being made to look distinctly ordinary, Liverpool will go into the second leg as favourites to qualify. Whether they deserve that tag or not is highly debatable given the footballing lesson they were treated to in the second half by Wenger’s side, but there’s little doubt that the final result did favour the away side. However, there wouldn’t be an Arsenal supporter alive who doesn’t think Wenger’s side can go to Anfield and at least grab a score draw, so all is not lost just yet.
The starting team was the one I hinted at yesterday with the manager opting to go with Eboue on the right side of the midfield over Theo Walcott. It turned out to be the wrong decision as the Ivorian had a completely ineffective game while the Englishman looked dazzling when he replaced van Persie at half time. Before Arsenal scored they looked the better side as Flamini, Fabregas and Hleb took control of the midfield and van Persie looked creative up front. The pressure was rewarded with the type of goal that this side are getting much, much better at scoring as Adebayor smartly headed home his strike partner’s corner.
Unfortunately the lead only lasted a couple of minutes. Three players were directly culpable for Kuyt’s goal as first Flamini failed to win a tackle that should have been made on Gerrard before Eboue and Toure were inexplicably stood up by the Liverpool captain’s fast feet. I don’t care how good Gerrard’s skill was, however, neither of the latter two players should have been beaten the way they were and it was some a seriously poor effort, especially considering Toure’s pre-game comments about nullifying the Englishman.
Arsenal looked shocked after the equaliser as Liverpool enjoyed their best spell of the game. However, the away side created very little up front as Gallas and Senderos shackled Torres rather well and the half ended at 1-1.
Playing without luck
I was surprised to see van Persie replaced at the break for Walcott. When I saw the youngster preparing to come on from the sideline I thought for sure that Eboue would be replaced, but it was revealed after the match that it was a forced change as the Dutchman had suffered a recurrence of his pesky thigh injury. It was a shame, too, as van Persie had looked the brightest attacking threat on the park for Arsenal in the first half and troubled the Liverpool defence on a number of occasions.
In the second half it was all Arsenal, but a mixture of poor refereeing, poor finishing and just plain bad luck meant Liverpool escaped with a draw. Indeed, Arsenal’s best performer in the second half – Hleb – was denied the clearest of penalties after his arm was tugged by Dirk Kuyt when through on goal. Now, while I am not one to harp on endlessly about penalty appeals that get turned down I have to say that Pieter Vink’s decision in this case was absolutely shocking. As the manager said after the game, Kuyt’s tug on the arm was about as clear as you can get and the referee was only 5 yards away with a perfect view I really can’t see how the referee made such a huge mistake.
Things got worse just a few minutes later when great work from Adebayor down the left saw Fabregas poke an effort towards the bottom corner of the goal. But Nicklas Bendtner, who had come on just a few minutes before, inadvertedly blocked the Spaniard’s effort and denied Arsenal a certain goal. On another day that would surely have gone in and the fact that you could see Bendtner mouthing the words; “I was trying to move my leg” after the effort summed up the situation perfectly. This was a game where the little things just weren’t going Arsenal’s way.
Things rather fizzled out in the final twenty minutes as Liverpool dropped deeper and deeper and the Arsenal players simply ran out of legs. They gave it their all and created the three or four chances required to win the game but as the manager pointed out after the game, it just didn’t happen.
“We tried very hard to create chances and in a game like that you do not create twenty chances, you create four or five. We had four – five, and we were punished on the one they had, and unfortunately we could not take all our chances.”
There are definitely parallels that can be drawn between this game and the first-leg against AC Milan and in that respect, I still feel Arsenal remain a good chance of going through. While a 0-0 at Anfield will see Liverpool qualify I just can’t see the game remaining scoreless and Arsenal’s performance earlier in the season at the same ground will give them great cause for optimism in that regard.
So, no disaster then but there is little doubt that the result was disappointing given the pattern of the game. The Arsenal boys and all the supporters will hope for better both this weekend in the Premiership and in the return at Anfield next Wednesday night.
What do you think?
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