Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Gerrard Babel
Maybe Liverpool truly is better in Europe, no matter the opposition.
Make no mistake, Arsenal were very good today. But outside of Adebayor’s goal, that was a return to form for Liverpool’s defense, which was absolutely majestic after Arsenal went one up.
Following a cagey back-and forth opening, reminiscent of a Premiership clash, Arsenal began to take control around the 20th minute, first with van Persie’s volley over the bar followed by the same player getting space at the top of the box, only for Reina to quickly dive low to make the stop.
But Arsenal broke the deadlock from the resulting corner, and it was little surprise to see them score from a set play. I don’t know why it’s been such an issue, and I don’t think it’s all zonal marking’s fault, as that style of defense has served Liverpool well under Benitez. But in the 22nd minute, Hyypia appeared to completely lose Adebayor after the short corner, leaving the Togolese striker with a point blank header that Reina had no chance on.
That goal could have doomed Liverpool. Arsenal have the potential to overrun teams after going one up, and they looked to be in that form. But Liverpool responded as well as could be expected, with Kuyt finishing off Gerrard’s low cross after the captain beat three Arsenal defenders with a storming run on the break. Liverpool’s first real threat and first shot on target, and it’s an equalizer.
It was clear the goal knocked Arsenal back, and Liverpool were arguably the better side for the rest of the half, but with only one threatening scramble following a free kick, cleared after Torres’ cross was too high for Hyypia, to show for it.
And although Liverpool started the second half similarly, with Kuyt forcing Almunia into an excellent save with Hyypia lurking for the rebound three minutes after the restart, Arsenal soon reclaimed their form. Starting around the 50th minute, the home side stepped up the pace, and Liverpool’s second half defending is the reason they’re taking an away goal advantage back to Anfield.
The introduction of Walcott at halftime, with van Persie going off with a thigh problem, gave Arsenal another option, and his pace was a major threat. In the 53rd minute Walcott drew a foul off Carragher, and Reina did well to claim the resulting free kick with Gallas nearby. Two minutes later, Walcott’s shot from distance whizzed past the far post. And a minute after that, only Kuyt’s superb intervention prevented Walcott from being through on goal.
In the 57th minute, Benitez brought on Benayoun for Babel, who had been ineffective and seemed nervous throughout, but it didn’t do much to alter the match. The 66th minute saw the two moments Arsenal will most rue: first, a scramble resulting in Skrtel clearing off the line, followed by a penalty shout for Hleb, going down under pressure from Kuyt and appearing to be pulled back, but clearly making the most of it. I honestly thought Vink was going to book Hleb for diving after not giving the penalty, but a corner was the result.
As an aside, as I criticize referees when I feel it’s warranted, it’s only fair to point out when one performs excellently, as Vink did today. He let the players play on at every opportunity, ignored soft penalty shouts at both ends (Torres had a claim in the 84th minute as well), and the game was far better for it, with none of the belligerence or backchat seen so often in the league.
Arsenal weren’t finished at that stage, with two further opportunities before 70 minutes were off the clock. First, Fabregas shot wide in space just outside the box and soon after looked certain to score, only for Bendtner to block the shot on Liverpool’s goalline. However, with Bendtner flagged for offside, it’s unlikely it would have counted even if he could have gotten out of the way.
But after being denied so many times, Arsenal, as Arsenal is prone to do, began to overplay and look for the long ball, and failed to work out any chances as clear-cut as the ones spurned from the 50th to 70th minute. Liverpool still had to be resolute, with Mascherano, Skrtel, and Carragher continuing to deny as Arsenal pressed in search of a winner, but Liverpool held on, and even began threatening on the counter through Torres, Gerrard, and the ever-present Kuyt in the closing minutes.
And after all that effort, Liverpool has the advantage going back to Anfield. Arsenal will certainly feel aggrieved they weren’t able to get a second, but it truly was a master-class defensive display by Liverpool, and reminiscent of the team’s best games in Europe.
First and foremost, today’s match was example #1 of why I defend Dirk Kuyt. Not only did he get the goal, getting in front of Gallas to reward Gerrard’s excellent run, but his work-ethic and tracking back were just as important. For all intents and purposes, he played as a deep-lying right midfielder after Benayoun came on (with the formation basically 4-4-1-1), and he filled the role to a tee. The aforementioned stop on Walcott stands out, but the tackle on Hleb (it would have been a very harsh penalty) and all-around defending, while still getting forward as much as possible, was exactly what Liverpool needed of him.
In addition, special mention for the entire defense, as well as Mascherano. The backline and Masch were crucial to keeping Arsenal from tallying a second, with composure, last-ditch tackles, Reina frequently coming out to sweep up, and some excellent marking on Arsenal’s strikers. Carragher did well on the right, preventing Arsenal (Hleb most often) from getting the final ball in from their left flank, while Aurelio was one of the better players in the first half, keeping Eboue silent while still getting forward.
What was disappointing was how Arsenal bossed the midfield at times. Fabregas and Flamini have had excellent seasons, but Alonso, Mascherano, and Gerrard are no slouches themselves. Alonso’s ineffectiveness was most disappointing; Mascherano had a clear defensive role, while Gerrard was frequently as isolated as Torres in attack (but still looked to break when given the chance), and it says a bit that Alonso was off for Lucas in the 72nd minute.
But there are far more positives than disappointments to take away. Liverpool now has an away goal advantage going into the second leg at Anfield, which is even better than the clean sheet 0-0 I was hoping for. But first, there’s the matter of the league match at the Emirates Saturday morning, which will have a huge impact on both sides’ league campaign, and I have to believe both team will deploy somewhat different lineups.