Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Champions League Preview: Arsenal vs. LiverpooL

It's Act One of a Three-Act Play with Arsenal hosting Liverpool at the Emirates in the first leg of a Champions League quarter-final that sandwiches a Premier League clash between the teams on Saturday lunchtime. Before the quarter-final draw was made it seemed mathematically inevitable that at least two of England's four representatives would be paired together in the last eight, and so it proved, with the teams who between them have contested the last three Champions League finals coming out of the pots together to set up the first quarter-final.

Arsenal, having lost this year to Manchester United in the FA Cup (on 16th February) and Chelsea in the Premier League 10 days ago, may feel happier facing Liverpool than either of their other domestic rivals, except that the Reds have by far the best pedigree of any English club in Europe's top competition, and in Rafael Benitez have a manager whose tactical acumen seems particularly well suited to two-legged European cat-and-mouse affairs.

The fact that Liverpool have struggled against Chelsea in the Premier League under Benitez, but twice defeated the Blues in the semi-finals of the Champions League in the last three years, underlines the point. So Arsenal's relatively good record against Benitez's Liverpool in domestic competition (played three, won three at home; played six, won two, drawn one, lost three at Anfield) may not be all that significant.

And although the Gunners thrashed Liverpool twice in four days at Anfield last season (3-1 in the FA Cup, 6-3 in the Carling Cup), that again is unlikely to have much bearing on Wednesday's fixture - or indeed the trilogy of matches over the coming week. For one thing, it is unlikely that any of Arsenal's scorers of those nine goals in January 2007 will be involved in these matches: Tomas Rosicky (2) is injured, Alexandre Song (1) has featured only rarely in the first team this season, and Julio Baptista (4), Jeremie Aliadiere (1) and Thierry Henry (1) have all left the club.

Morale-Boosting Wins

More relevant could be this season's meeting between the sides at Anfield - and each team's recent form. On 28th October, the Gunners travelled to Merseyside having just thrashed Slavia Prague 7-0 in the Champions League. Liverpool had gone down 2-1 to Besiktas in Istanbul, but they took the lead against the Gunners after seven minutes through a superbly struck free-kick from Steven Gerrard. However, Arsenal took that set-back in their stride and continued to play their fluent passing game, threatening the Liverpool goal several times before finally being rewarded when Cesc Fabregas latched onto an Alex Hleb through-ball to equalise ten minutes from time. It was seen as a point gained by Liverpool and two dropped by Arsenal at the time. Both teams were unbeaten in the Premier League but Liverpool were struggling a little at Anfield while Arsenal went into the game on the back of 12 straight wins.

Fast-forward to mid-February, with the resumption of Champions League fare on the horizon. FA Cup fifth round weekend was a disaster for both sides, Arsenal being summarily dismissed by Manchester United, who administered a 4-0 thrashing that could have been even more emphatic, and Liverpool succumbing 2-1 at home to Championship side Barnsley despite having taken the lead. Since then, Arsenal have played eight in all competitions, winning just two, drawing five and losing one, scoring just 10 and conceding eight. Liverpool, in contrast, have played nine, won eight and lost one, racking up 19 goals while shipping seven.

Little doubt, then, about who is in the better shape going into these three clashes. But both sides bounced back from defeats on 'Grand Slam Sunday' by securing morale-boosting wins at the weekend.

Liverpool defeated neighbours Everton 1-0 in the Merseyside derby on Sunday, after Arsenal had staged a remarkable comeback at Bolton 24 hours earlier. The Gunners were two goals and one man down at half-time at The Reebok, but dug deeper than they had all season to conjure three second-half goals and keep alive their flickering hopes of reclaiming the Premier League title they last won in 2003-04.

A Question Of Targets

The fact that Arsenal thus remain involved in the Premiership title race is seen as another key factor in assessing the likely outcome of this Champions League quarter-final. To the frustration of their fans, Liverpool's prospects of breaking their 18-year domestic league drought were effectively snuffed out some time ago, on the back of too many dropped points at Anfield. Elimination from the domestic cups also meant that winning the Champions League for a sixth time became their priority. The victory over Everton at the weekend tightened their grip on fourth place in the Premiership - the Reds' insurance policy for next season's European adventure - so they go into Wednesday's clash and next Tuesday's second leg focused solely on reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League for the third time in four years.

Arsenal still have twin targets, and must beat Liverpool on Saturday as well as in this quarter-final if they are to retain any chance of thwarting Manchester United and Chelsea in the title race. That could influence both managers' team selections over these three matches, and would appear to favour Benitez on the face of it - something he has already acknowledged himself. The Liverpool boss also believes that taking the Gunners back to Merseyside for the second leg will be to the Reds' advantage. He confirmed: "Playing the second game at home could be very positive for us, because whenever we play at Anfield, it is an inspiration to us."

European Records & The Current Campaign

When it comes to Europe, Liverpool are the undisputed masters among English clubs. The Reds have won the Champions Cup/Champions League five times (1977, 1978, 1981, 1984 and 2005), and also won the Uefa Cup in 1973, 1976 and 2001. They have been Champions Cup/Champions League runners-up twice, in 1985 and again last year when they were beaten 2-1 by AC Milan.

Arsenal's European record is modest by comparison. Their best performance in the Champions League was when finishing as runners-up to Barcelona in 2006. They won the Fairs Cup in 1970 and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1994, and were runners-up in the Uefa Cup in 2000, and the Cup Winners' Cup in 1980 and 1995.

However, the Gunners are currently unbeaten in 20 European home matches, 18 of them in the Champions League, which is the fourth longest unbeaten streak in Champions League history. It is just two short of the English record held by Manchester United, but 11 short of the all-time record set by Bayern Munich.

As for Liverpool, they have won their last five Champions League matches, two of which were away from Anfield. Their winning streak is the joint seventh longest in the competition's history; ironically Arsenal hold the English record with six successive victories, though Barcelona hold the competition record with nine.

Last season, Liverpool finished third in the Premier League and Arsenal fourth, so both had to get through the third qualifying round in August in order to take their places in the Group Stage.

Both progressed smoothly over that preliminary hurdle, Liverpool disposing of Toulouse 5-0 on aggregate and Arsenal beating Sparta Prague by the same aggregate score.

Once in the Group Stage, though, the two clubs took contrasting paths. The Gunners cruised through their first three matches without conceding a goal, defeating much-fancied Sevilla 3-0, Steaua Bucharest 1-0 away and Slavia Prague 7-0 at home. That equalled the record victory in the competition, though Liverpool would soon eclipse it. However, the Reds had got off to a less than auspicious start in their Group matches. A 1-1 draw at Porto was followed by a 1-0 home defeat by Marseille and a 2-1 reverse in Istanbul at the hands of Besiktas, leaving their survival hopes precariously poised.

So the reverse fixtures began with Arsenal looking comfortable and Liverpool anything but. The Reds though got down to business, hammering Besiktas 8-0, Porto 4-1 and Marseille 4-0 in an impressive display of strength and purpose.

As for the Gunners, they were held to a goalless draw in Prague, then lost 3-1 to Sevilla on November 27th - their first defeat of the season in any competition. But they rallied to beat Steaua 2-1, though like Liverpool, their earlier stumbles left them as runners-up in their respective Groups (Arsenal behind Sevilla, Liverpool behind Porto).

San Siro Successes

That meant both would face Group winners in the first knockout round, and the draw looked tough when Arsenal came out of the pot with holders AC Milan (Liverpool's conquerors in last season's final) and the Reds were paired with the Rossoneri's city rivals Internazionale, reigning Italian champions and current Serie A leaders.

However, the Premiership clubs did themselves and their League proud, Arsenal defeating Milan 2-0 on aggregate and Liverpool humbling Inter 3-0 over two legs. Both won their away legs at the San Siro in impressive style. And so to this quarter-final meeting against each other. Both squads (and their fans) would probably have preferred continental opposition, if only because that is what European football is all about. But they may need to get used to Premier League opponents if they are to win the tournament.

That is because whoever prevails in this quarter-final may well meet Chelsea in the semis, assuming the Blues can get past Fenerbahce. And whoever wins that semi could find themselves facing Manchester United in the Moscow final - although Roma and Barcelona/Schalke will have something to say about that.


This is the 200th meeting between Arsenal and Liverpool in a major competition. So far, Arsenal have won 70, Liverpool have won 80, and 49 have been drawn. They played each other four times last season, the League fixtures producing emphatic home wins (3-0 at he Emirates, 4-1 at Anfield), while Arsenal knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup (1-3) and Carling Cup (3-6), both at Anfield.

Arsene Wenger leads Rafa Benitez in the head-to-heads with five wins to Rafa's three; the only draw was the 1-1 earlier this season at Anfield.

The two clubs have never met before in European competition. Arsenal have played one other English club at home in a European match, and that was four years ago, when they lost 2-1 at home to Chelsea at this same stage of the Champions League, going out on aggregate after having drawn at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool have played another English club on six previous occasions away from home in European competition - and are yet to win.


Gael Clichy, Denilson, Emmanuel Adebayor, Alexander Hleb and Emmanuel Eboue (Arsenal) and Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Fabio Aurelio (Liverpool) will miss the second leg of this tie if they are shown a yellow card at the Emirates.

Expert View

Former Liverpool legend Alan Hansen, now a BBC pundit, expects his old club to go through after two very tight games, citing momentum and confidence as huge factors in football, and saying Liverpool have more of it in this competition than Arsenal.

Hansen said on the BBC Sport website: "Arsenal have been struggling and have been in freefall, despite a great result against AC Milan in the San Siro in the last 16, but they came back from real adversity at the weekend and it would be foolish to discount them."

He described their comeback at Bolton as "a performance that showed real reserves of character, given their recent form."

But he said Liverpool are a team "built for the Champions League," saying they "proved it again against Inter Milan in the last round. They were very solid, good on the counter-attack and will fancy their chances against Arsenal.

"Arsenal have huge ability and they will hope their big players demonstrate it against Liverpool, but Emmanuel Adebayor has gone off the boil recently and even Cesc Fabregas has not been playing as well as he was.

"They have struggled defensively and opponents will note how they cracked under pressure against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after holding the lead going into the last 20 minutes.

"Arsenal will take great heart from what happened at The Reebok on Saturday - but Liverpool will be a different proposition to Bolton. Liverpool are my favourites to go through because the Champions League really seems to suit them. It is a more cautious, tactical approach and they have a cautious manager in Rafael Benitez.

"This is not in any way a negative comment about Benitez. He simply has a way of playing that suits the Champions League, as Liverpool's recent record in the competition proves, and that is good management.

"Liverpool will get men behind the ball at Arsenal and they will be delighted the second leg is at Anfield, where the crowd will be such a factor. I expect this to be a very tight affair, more of a slog than pretty football. The away goal is more important now than when I played, in fact, it is hugely important, but make no mistake, if you offered Benitez 0-0 now he would bite your hand off."

Meanwhile, in the build-up to the match, players on both sides have been asked to comment and predictably their responses to the journalists have been blown up into banner headlines that suggest arrogant over-confidence when in fact a circumspect, honest opinion was offered.

Thus "Toure Says Liverpool Are Scared Of Arsenal" and "Gerrard Says Arsenal Should Fear Us" have made good copy but generated more heat than light. The fact is that both these teams, the managers and even the supporters, have huge respect for one another. There is little of the hostility or bitterness that flavours matches between either of them and Manchester United or Chelsea, but that does not mean this trilogy of matches will not be very keenly contested, with no quarter asked or given.


Last Six Matches - All Competitions


29 Mar (Premier League) v Bolton (A) WON 3-2
23 Mar (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) LOST 1-2
16 Mar (Premier League) v Middlesbrough (H) DREW 1-1
09 Mar (Premier League) v Wigan (A) DREW 0-0
04 Mar (Champions League) v AC Milan (A) WON 2-0
01 Mar (Premier League) v Aston Villa (H) DREW 1-1


30 Mar (Premier League) v Everton (H) WON 1-0
23 Mar (Premier League) v Man Utd (A) LOST 0-3
15 Mar (Premier League) v Reading (H) WON 2-1
11 Mar (Champions League) v Inter Milan (A) WON 1-0
08 Mar (Premier League) v Newcastle (H) WON 3-0
05 Mar (Premier League) v West Ham (H) WON 4-0

Champions League 2007-08


Third Qualifying Round : 1 v Sparta Prague (A) WON 2-0
Third Qualifying Round : 2 v Sparta Prague (H) WON 3-0
Group H Matchday 1 v Sevilla (H) WON 3-0
Group H Matchday 2 v Steaua (A) WON 1-0
Group H Matchday 3 v Slavia Prague (H) WON 7-0
Group H Matchday 4 v Slavia Prague (A) DREW 0-0
Group H Matchday 5 v Sevilla (A) LOST 1-3
Group H Matchday 6 v Steaua (H) WON 2-1
First Knockout Round : 1 v AC Milan (H) DREW 0-0
First Knockout Round : 2 v AC Milan (A) WON 2-0


Third Qualifying Round : 1 v Toulouse (A) WON 1-0
Third Qualifying Round : 2 v Toulouse (H) WON 4-0
Group A Matchday 1 v Porto (A) DREW 1-1
Group A Matchday 2 v Marseille (H) LOST 0-1
Group A Matchday 3 v Besiktas (A) LOST 1-2
Group A Matchday 4 v Besiktas (H) WON 8-0
Group A Matchday 5 v Porto (H) WON 4-1
Group A Matchday 6 v Marseille (A) WON 4-0
First Knockout Round : 1 v Inter Milan (H) WON 2-0
First Knockout Round : 2 v Inter Milan (A) WON 1-0



Striker Emmanuel Adebayor is set to start after being rested for Saturday's game at Bolton. Midfielder Abou Diaby is available because his suspension after being sent off in that match does not apply to European football.

Last Starting XI (v Bolton): Arsenal: Almunia, Toure, Senderos (Walcott 59), Gallas, Clichy, Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas, Diaby, Bendtner (Adebayor 60), Van Persie (Justin Hoyte 90). Subs Not Used: Lehmann, Eboue.

Squad: Arsenal (from): Almunia, Eboue, Toure, Gallas, Clichy, Hleb, Flamini, Fabregas, Walcott, van Persie, Adebayor, Lehmann, Diaby, Bendtner, Hoyte, Senderos, Gilberto, Denilson.


Midfielder Javier Mascherano is likely to return to the side after serving a one-game suspension. Defenders Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio are also back in the squad after recovering from injuries.

Last Starting XI (v Everton): Liverpool: Reina, Carragher, Hyypia, Skrtel, Riise, Lucas, Gerrard (Crouch 90), Alonso, Babel (Benayoun 82), Torres (Pennant 89), Kuyt. Subs Not Used: Itandje, Finnan.

Squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Skrtel, Riise, Aurelio, Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Kuyt, Voronin, Crouch, Torres, Pennant, Lucas, Itandje.



While Cesc Fabregas will provide the Gunners' main creative impetus, and his midfield battle with Javier Mascherano will probably be pivotal, it will be goals that decide the tie, and Arsenal will be looking to Dutchman Robin van Persie, a player with the big game temperament, to deliver after returning to full fitness from the knee injury sustained while on international duty with Holland last October. Van Persie has scored eight goals despite restricted appearances, and now has 42 in his Arsenal career. Emmanuel Adebayor, likely to partner him in attack against Liverpool, has 39 to his credit - 23 of them scored this season.


It has to be Fernando Torres at the moment, the striker who is in electric form and whose partnership with midfielder Steven Gerrard has proved dazzlingly productive in recent weeks. Torres now has 28 goals to his account this season, and Gerrard 19, with the pair of them scoring nine times in Europe. Torres has been praised from all quarters this week, deservedly so, and is flourishing as the main striker in Benitez's more settled side. His pace could trouble the Arsenal defence, and the Spaniard will undoubtedly provide the main goal threat to the Gunners.

Torres Enjoying Easy Life At Anfield

Fernando Torres insists it is "easy" to play well alongside Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard.

The Spanish striker, with 28 goals already this season, is aiming his shooting boots at Arsenal on Wednesday night in the Champions League quarter-final, first leg at the Emirates.

Ahead of the clash with the Gunners, Torres said: "I am pleased with the way I have settled in English football, it is important that I have good team-mates and a manager who can help me. Stevie has been a great help, he is one of the best players in the world and my understanding with him is easy."

He added: "It has been a new season, new team-mates, and it is important that everyone has been able to help me.

"Everyone wants to play alongside the best players and I am doing that with Stevie and scoring a lot of goals.

"My target is to continue doing that, I do not have a number to aim at but I want to do my best for the team to win trophies.

"It is the job of strikers to score goals, and I am doing my job. It is my first season, though, and I am surprised with how well it has gone.

"I need to be playing in the best competition so it is important that I can continue to play in the Champions League. That is my aim after this Arsenal tie.

"I have enjoyed winning in the San Siro, and I will look forward to playing at the Emirates. I am improving, but the most important thing for me is that I win trophies and get to the final.

"I have scored a lot of goals this season but I am more motivated by winning trophies for the team. My aim is for the team to have success, personal goals are secondary to team success."

Reina - Rafa Is A Genius

Liverpool goalkeeper Jose Reina is confident manager Rafa Benitez will again demonstrate his European touch of genius to help the Reds past Arsenal in the UEFA Champions League.

The Reds travel to Emirates Stadium to take on Arsenal in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday in a match which can be seen live on Sky Sports 2.

Liverpool have not defeated Arsenal away since 2000, but Reina believes Benitez - who has guided the Reds to two Champions League finals in the last three years - will again work his magic to earn a first leg advantage.

"Rafa's record in Europe gives the team extra belief we will go through," Reina told The Sun.

"He's a genius when it comes to tactics and a true specialist in preparing teams for two-legged cup ties.

"His attention to detail and past record of success gives us so much confidence.

"I don't know why we play better in the Champions League.

"In the league we have struggled with the endurance of competing with the big teams over nine months but the knock-out format suits us better.

"If this team continues growing by getting to the final in Moscow the Liverpool legend in Europe will be even more special."

Rafa Benitez Outlines His Vision For Liverpool

As Rafael Benitez glances beyond the dug-out at the Emirates Stadium this evening, he could be forgiven an envious look towards his opposite number.

Arsene Wenger has enjoyed immense success at Arsenal and his achievements in the Premier League will always command the respect and admiration of the Liverpool manager.

Yet Benitez believes that Wenger has had what he so far has not had at Anfield - the patient backing and indulgence of his paymasters as they buy completely into his vision for the club.

The Arsenal manager's vision is well documented. He spends less than the other big three in English football, but invests still significant amounts of money wisely in young talent that is the lifeblood - and the future - of the club.

Benitez believes such a model must be the way forward for Liverpool. But privately he will argue that he has never enjoyed complete faith in his own similar vision, and has come under pressure to deliver when the odds are stacked against him.

The Liverpool manager has spent big money in his four years on Merseyside, but still nowhere near as much as either Chelsea or Manchester United, and only a little more than Arsenal.

Yet he has delivered two regal processions into the Champions League Final, winning the trophy in 2005, and he has also won the FA Cup. Add to that qualification every year so far for the Champions League and the Spanish coach has cause to believe he is doing his job.

Yet the pressure is there to do better, particularly in the league. Indeed, this season he seemed odds on to be sacked by the end of the campaign.

Another impressive European run has diverted that threat for the moment but yesterday Benitez expressed his vision for Liverpool and quietly warned his bosses that if there is ever going to be success at the club, then it is time to back his blueprint implicitly... just as Arsenal's do Wenger.

"You need a long-term vision if you want style and a winning team, and you have to be patient and back that vision if you are ever going to achieve success," he explained. "If you look at Arsenal, then they are clear in what they want to achieve and the vision has been set out for a very long time.

"Arsene Wenger has done a fabulous job, he is fantastic and I have great respect for him and his style.

"But he has been allowed to develop that style over a long period of time, and that is the key. If you want to progress you have to identify a vision and then back it. You have to be patient and believe in the long-term success of that vision."

The four years that Benitez has spent at Anfield has been a curious period for the Spaniard, with pressure almost a constant factor. Yet he believes that with the financial dominance of Chelsea and Manchester United in English football, the key to success for a less wealthy club like his own must lie in long-term planning, and faith in the right man at the helm to eventually deliver.

"In the Premier League there are three ways of winning things, which depend on the amount of money you have available," explained Benitez.

"You can go the Chelsea route and spend a massive amount of money in a short space of time, which gives you an edge. Or do what Manchester United do, which is spend a lot of money over time, and if that doesn't work, go again and spend more.

"Then there is the Arsenal way, which is to spend money, yes, but invest in the future. To have a vision and to clearly support that vision, even if it doesn't deliver success immediately.

"At this time, Arsenal's model is the best idea for us. We can not compete with the other two, so we have to progress slowly, and we have to put in place with the youth teams and reserves the right things for the future.

"I respect what Wenger has done, and his style is clearer than ours because he has had more time. But there were times - are times - when he cannot win, and then you need faith. That is what we need too.

"When I came we had won nothing for two years and were struggling to qualify for the Champions League. We had to change things and we had to start from a low position.

"We have spent money but the others have spent more. And yet we have closed the gap. We have also got to the Champions League Final and won it after 21 years without winning it.

"People don't say anything about that though, they just say it is 18 years since we won the league. But our idea is to ignore that pressure, that criticism, stay calm and keep going forward."

You need a long-term vision if you want style and a winning team, and be patient to achieve success.

Manchester United have spent a lot of money over time, and if that doesn't work they spend more.

Our idea is to ignore pressure and criticism, stay calm and keep going forward.

Wenger has been allowed to develop his style over a long period and that is the key.

David Bentley Plots Move To Champions League Club

David Bentley’s ambitions to be England’s first-choice right-winger at the 2010 World Cup will probably lead to his exit from Blackburn. Bentley has begun discussing a new contract with Blackburn but says his top priority is playing regularly in Europe, something that is not guaranteed with Blackburn next season.

In the one England game I’ve seen him play (the one against Switzerland), Bentley improved as the game went on and finished on a high note, with his runs and passing adding a new creative dimension to the England setup.

His downfall might be that he’s engineered to be the all-rounder - not as fast as Shaun Wright-Phillips or Aaron Lennon and not as good a crosser or passer as David Beckham, but good enough in both areas to start for England.

I also doubt that moving to a big club will give him a better chance at an England call-up, although the added European exposure would certainly help. With Arsenal having rejected him and Manchester United and Chelsea not reported to be interested (although if he moves to Manchester United he’ll be a good backup for Ronaldo), Liverpool and Everton (or even Tottenham) may be his best options when it comes to regular European adventures.

And even then, a man of Bentley’s ambitions would not be content with just playing in the Uefa Cup - if he wants to be considered good enough to start for England, he will probably need to prove himself in the Champions League first.

And speaking of hard decisions - he might just make the leap abroad to a Champions League club in Spain or Italy where the pace may suit him better.

So where do you think David Bentley would move to - one of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United or abroad?