Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Contrasting Fortunes for Gunners and Liverpool on Travels

Now Arsenal supporters won't be short of reasons to smile this morning, but if their historic victory in the Bernabeu last night, and the textbook European performance that brought it about, wasn't enough, any Gunner who saw David Beckham's typically supercilious interview on ITV before the match will have had even more reason for satisfaction.

Beckham, asked about Thierry Henry and his future, smirked knowingly at the notion that the Frenchman might end up playing alongside him at Real Madrid, rather than at Barcelona, where speculation suggests he would go if he left North London. Arsenal fans will feel a little vindication today that not only did their team wipe the aforementioned smirk off Beckham's face, but also that they weighed in with a huge result which can only help Henry feel that he can still achieve great things with the club.
Of course, no team should go to the Bernabeu these days with the same trepidation as in the earlier years of this millenium, when Raul was prince of strikers, Zidane and Figo were in their prime and Claude Makalele was the silent steel who allowed them all to play. Aging and defensively vulnerable now, Madrid can often seem like the footballing personification of Gloria Swanson's washed-up old silent movie star in Sunset Boulevard - "we're still big, its just the Champions League that got smaller!".

All that said, they still possess an abundance of talent, and have improved of sufficiently of late under new coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, to have worried an Arsenal side that have struggled so wanly in domestic football this year. That the Gunners will look back on last night, and the missed opportunities by Henry, Diaby, Reyes and Ljungberg, as a squandered chance to have killed the tie, is testament to Arsene Wenger's simple and effective tactical set-up and a timely display of fortitude by his young team.

This time last year Liverpool were in the process of trying to convince their talisman, Steven Gerrard, that he could realise his own grand ambitions on Merseyside. Then came Istanbul and all that and Liverpool's progression to being serious challengers for big honours. Last night in Lisbon was a little reminder both of Gerrard's importance to Liverpool's offensive thrust, and also, yet again, of the fact that their progress under Rafa Benitez will be held up until they add some real menace into their forward line.

The recruitment of Robbie Fowler in January was popular, and he has shown qualities in link up play thus far, but Liverpool are devoid of pace up front at the moment, an attribute - as demonstrated so starkly by Henry and Arsenal last night - which is so important away from home in Europe.

As normal of late, Liverpool controlled possession, their precise one-touch passing now a familiar Benitez hallmark. But on no occasion did the Benfica defence - admittedly brilliantly marshalled by goalscoring hero Luisao - feel stretched, for all the Reds territorial dominance. The worry for Liverpool is that, although a one goal deficit seems a puny one to bring to one of Europe's toughest arenas, if Benfica are similarly well-organised in the second leg they will have a decent chance of frustrating a home side which is not bursting with goals these days.

So while Arsenal are in the nice position of knowing that Real must attack them at Highbury, leaving more opportunities for the sort of counter-attacks we saw last night, Liverpool will know that the hard work is just beginning.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

why such a gloomy prognostic of liverpool's chances of progression? benfica showed few signs last night, or in previous rounds, of any real quality. they were lucky to get the win. in front of an anfield crowd the champions of europe have a good chance of progressing.

the arsenal midfield will be found out if not by real madrid by any decent side. they will not win the CL.

5:24 p.m.  
Blogger Tommy77 said...

I would still regard Liverpool as a sounder bet for this year's CL in the long run, but just feel that they missed an opportnuity last night. Benfica are defintely very ordinary, but all it takes is for them to snatch an away goal to leave Liverpool needing three, and Liverpool - strong as they are elsewhere - don't look full of goals at the moment. Gloomy might be a bit strong, it just could be a tricky night in 2 weeks time.

5:41 p.m.  

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