The history books will say that on the 8th of April, 2008 Liverpool beat Arsenal 4-2 at Anfield to win a two-legged Champions League quarter-final affair 5-3 on aggregate. However, the scoreline does not reflect just how close Arsenal were to going through themselves on an unbelievably exciting night of football.
The key moments came during the 84th and 85th minute of the game. With the game poised at 2-1 to Liverpool, Arsene Wenger’s side were just seven minutes away from progressing on away goals when Emmanuel Adebayor tapped home to make it 2-2 after an absolutely amazing run by second-half substitute Theo Walcott. But just as it looked like Arsenal were heading for the semi-finals their hopes were dashed just thirty seconds later when Liverpool substitute Ryan Babel worked his way into the area and was awarded the softest of penalties after being adjudged to have been pulled down by Kolo Toure.
Steven Gerrard converted from the spot to turn the incredible ecstacy of Adebayor’s goal into immense disappointment. As Wenger’s side pushed in vain for a third goal it was inevitable that Liverpool would have chances on the break and the icing on the cake was added when Babel broke free to race pass an exhausted Cesc Fabregas and slot home to make it 4-2. Unbelievable, unfair, and utterly, utterly heartbreaking.
It is difficult to put into the words the feelings that went through my body during the minute following Adebayor’s goal and the Liverpool penalty award. I’m not exaggerating when I say that when Arsenal scored I was in tears of joy. My emotions were going mental, I was jumping around like a flipping idiot and pumping my fists like some sort of crazed boxer. Then came the confusion when Babel hit the deck.
The challenge looked so innocuous on first viewing that when the referee ran over to dish out a yellow card I thought he had given it to the Liverpool winger for diving. When I then saw that it had been given to Toure and a penalty had been awarded I literally felt sick. The boys had battled so hard and Walcott had produced such a moment of brilliance that for it to be taken away by a poor, poor decision by the referee seemed so unfair.
When Gerrard smashed home the penalty I knew it was over. In my mind there was just no way that Arsenal were going to come back again and when the fourth Liverpool goal went in I just collapsed on my bed, consigned to defeat, cursing to myself and wondering how it had all gone so wrong.
The man adjudged to have fouled Babel, Kolo Toure, had this to say about the penalty decision:
“The referee gave the foul against me, but I just moved away from him [Babel] and I think Cesc [Fabregas] caught his hand maybe, which was outside the area anyway – but that is the game and the referee has given the penalty. What can you do?”
As he says, what can you do? While I don’t want to blame the referee for Arsenal’s exit from the competition this one is really hard to ignore. It absolutely was not a penalty and when you consider the spot kick that was not given when Alexandr Hleb was pulled down in the first leg I think every Arsenal fan has every right to feel hard done by.
While the manager was also critical of the referee at the end of the match he too refused to put the blame for Arsenal’s exit completely on the officials. Quite rightly, Arsene Wenger pointed to the defensive mistakes that Arsenal made on the first two Liverpool goals as well as a lack of concentration for the penalty award. However, the manager was also quick to complement the mental strength of his side and their overall performance over the two legs.
“It was down to big mistakes defensively. We conceded the first goal on a corner, the second goal I feel we gave Torres too much room. But this team has plenty of talent and potential, they are mentally strong. We just lack maturity in some situations.”
I do think that while I can understand a lot of people are going to be upset about this defeat – heck, I’m still furious about it – a lot of positives can be taken out of this game as well as the season as a whole. I am now resigned to the fact that Arsenal will not be winning any trophies this season but I want to make it clear that I am still delighted with the progress that this side has made since last season. They have gone absolutely all the way in pursuit of the league and a step further in the Champions League and were just a few minutes away from a semi-final appearance in the competition, something I didn’t feel was possible at the start of the season.
While it is now clear that this Arsenal squad is just a little bit too small to cope with challenging for both the Premiership and Champions League, supporters should not lose sight of just how far the team has progressed. The temptation is there to suggest that Wenger sign a bunch of new players for next season but in my opinion I feel the team is around 90% of what it needs to be and just a couple of additions to strengthen the squad are what is required to add that final 10%.
I think that despite the result as supporters we should feel incredibly proud of the effort and performance that the Arsenal players gave last night and indeed the efforts they have put in over the entire season. Luck may not have been with this side very much lately but the endeavour and effort has never wavered and that should not be forgotten.
What do you think?
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