Liverpool wins 5-3 on aggregate
Carragher Skrtel Hyypia Aurelio
Kuyt Crouch Gerrard
Gerrard 86’ (pen)
Well, that was a very strange, and very English, game. I guess I should be thankful it wasn't another 1-1.
I like to think I understand Benitez’s team selections more often than not; it’s why I hazard a guess at the squad in every preview. But no matter how well Crouch played on Saturday, I was stunned to see him start in place of Babel, with the team otherwise the same as last Wednesday. There were suggestions it was because of an injury to Babel, but with him coming on as a substitute, I think that theory can be put to rest.
But the formation remained the same as in the last leg. Gerrard went out to the left, with Crouch playing behind Torres for the most part. And Liverpool’s play for the first 30 minutes was an utter abomination.
If I couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd and didn’t know better from the apparel, I’d have thought Arsenal were at home. They dominated Liverpool from top to bottom. The home side couldn’t retain possession, gave the ball away incredibly cheaply, and Torres and Gerrard both looked isolated.
It only took Arsenal 13 minutes to open the scoring. After sustained pressure (and questions of handball in the buildup after Liverpool only half-cleared), Hleb put Diaby through with Skrtel late to cover the gap, and Diaby ran away from both Skrtel and Alonso to blast a close-range shot off Reina’s knee and into the net. I’ve defended Reina for some of the goals Liverpool’s let in, specifically those from crosses, but you can't defend being beaten at your near post, no matter how hard Diaby hit the ball or how close he was.
And for the next 17 minutes, there were real fears Arsenal could score a second. Liverpool continued to turn the ball over whenever possible while failing to create any real opportunities.
But that changed after Aurelio’s deflected cross forced Almunia into conceding a corner. Hyypia embarrassed Senderos with a jinking run and looped a free header over Fabregas and off the far post from Gerrard’s outswinger (Liverpool scoring from a corner!). It was masterful movement and a top class header, and I couldn’t be happier for Hyypia, who’s filled the void following Agger’s injury better than expected, even given his track record for this club.
Thankfully, the goal changed the game and settled a shaky Liverpool. No longer were Arsenal controlling possession and winning the battles in midfield, while Liverpool made far less errors, although Alonso and Mascherano were both still too error prone for a game of this magnitude. An injury to Flamini didn’t help matters for Arsenal, going off in the 42nd minute with what looked to be an Achilles problem (I'm no doctor, it easy could be an ankle or foot injury too).
The second half started out in the same vein, with Gerrard, Crouch, and Torres working better in tandem, but outside of a Crouch deflection just wide off a wild Aurelio shot, Liverpool weren’t creating clear-cut chances, and Arsenal grew back into the match after about 10 minutes, with Eboue a consistent threat to get into the box from the right, although lacking in end product.
But then that man Torres struck again. Crouch flicked on a long ball, Torres controlled in the box, spinning Senderos inside out before firing past a hopeless Almunia. Yet another example of his talents, and that he really loves playing in front of the Kop.
The goal invigorated Torres, who had been playing mostly through the left channel in the second half with Crouch looking to win headers through the middle. But Arsenal almost had an immediate reply, when Liverpool defenders left a ball that skittered through to Adebayor through on goal, but the striker’s touch sent it wide.
Babel coming on for Crouch in the 79th minute looked to be another turning point, with the substitute staying through the middle and threatening with his pace. Babel’s deflected shot led to successive corners, followed by Gerrard’s volley in space sent high and wide. But out the blue, as Arsenal is always capable of doing, Liverpool was torn apart on the counter in the 84th minute.
Walcott, coming off the bench just 10 minutes earlier, ran nearly the full length of the pitch, leaving both Mascherano and Hyypia in his wake, which led to four Arsenal players in the box with only Skrtel back to defend. The Slovakian was unable to cut out Walcott’s cross, which found an open Adebayor who easily slotted home.
After all that hard work coming back into the game and going up after letting in an early goal, it looked to be over. But although Arsenal is the team renowned for scoring late winners, Liverpool would have the last say, which is just about as heartening as the win itself.
Barely a minute after Adebayor's equalizer, the pace of Babel once again threatened, and Toure brought him down in the box. Gerrard stepped up to take the resulting penalty, and although Almunia went the right way, the kick was too high and too hard to stop. Less than 120 seconds after Arsenal looked to come back to not only advance, but break Liverpool hearts in the process, the home side was back in the driver’s seat.
To cut out Arsenal’s complaining now, if you think the penalty incident was similar to the one they were denied in the last leg, I cannot help you. There, Kuyt made contact with Hleb’s arm, but didn’t pull him back or down. Hleb even dove the opposite way that Kuyt’s contact would have sent him. Today, both Fabregas and Toure pulled Babel back before Toure clattering into him sealed the penalty.
From there, it was going to be a nervous final few minutes, and Liverpool brought Riise on for Torres to add a defender. But in the second minute of injury time, Arsenal was caught with bodies forward, and Kuyt’s clearance found Babel one-on-one with Fabregas, with the Dutchman’s pace and strength too much for the Arsenal midfielder, and the substitute sealed the outcome.
It all looked set up for Benitez to be the villain. I’ll admit, I questioned, and still question, this formation with Crouch in Gerrard’s role and Stevie relegated out wide. Liverpool failed to get into the game, was exceptionally sloppy in midfield (while Gerrard’s ostensibly in a free role when he plays in the middle of the 4-2-3-1, he tracks back to defend far more and far better than Crouch can), and Arsenal dominated. Even after Liverpool equalized, they weren’t taking full advantage of the swing in momentum.
But it was the combination of Crouch and Torres that brought the second goal. I’m still not sure if this was the game to try this partnership in this formation, but Benitez can point to that moment as a demonstration of its potential.
Even with the incredible win in the last ten minutes, and an absorbing game from start to finish, I’m still somewhat upset with the proceedings. Arsenal should never be allowed to run rampant at Anfield as they did in the first 30 minutes, and the midfield was partly to blame. I can’t remember how many times Alonso was caught in possession, even after Liverpool equalized, while the team was bailed out of some sticky situations by Carragher, Skrtel, and Hyypia, with the Finn probably my man of the match for his equalizer and tackling at the back, Adebayor’s equalizer aside. I also need to make mention of, and apologize to, Carragher, who did well getting forward at the right times. Aurelio was solid throughout as well, while Babel also has to be considered for man of the match for the difference he made after coming on.
And even with my complaining, at the end of the day, Liverpool were deserved winners. I shouldn't even be complaining after a win like this. Even with a “contentious” penalty, scoring two goals in the final 7 or so minutes is impressive to say the least. And to come back to take the lead twice against a side with the quality of Arsenal, whether it’s at Anfield or not, is just as impressive.
Now Liverpool gets the pleasure of a third semi-final against Chelsea in four years. I can’t wait.