Sunday, April 06, 2008

Arsenal 1 - 1 LiverpooL

Emirates Stadium as a 1-1 draw dealt a near fatal blow to their fading Barclays Premier League title hopes.

Just three days after their European tie ended all square, both teams were back to do battle for league points.

Each manager made several changes, no doubt with one eye on next week's second leg of their Champions League quarter-final, but there was still more than enough talent on display to make for an entertaining encounter.

Recalled striker Peter Crouch gave Liverpool the lead at the end of the first half, with Nicklas Bendtner levelling on 53 minutes.

However, with Manchester United, who play at Middlesbrough tomorrow, still five points clear at the top of the table, Gunners boss Arsene Wenger knew only victory would have kept their slim hopes of the title alive.

The trip to Anfield on Tuesday night now takes on extra significance if a season which promised so much is not to end in disappointment.

Liverpool started well and Crouch soon tested Manuel Almunia, letting fly from 25 yards and forcing the Arsenal goalkeeper to make an acrobatic one-handed save to tip the ball over.

Crouch was involved again in the 17th minute, this time slipping an expert pass inside the Arsenal backline.

John Arne Riise ran onto the ball but, with William Gallas sliding in, the Norwegian lifted his 18-yard shot over the crossbar.

It was proving to be something of a chess match, with both teams happy to wait each other out and look for a quick counter-attack.

After 31 minutes, Liverpool broke down the right, with Yossi Benayoun getting in on the overlap.

However, his angled drive flashed across goal.

It should, though, have been 1-0 when, after 35 minutes, the Gunners broke quickly through Mathieu Flamini and Theo Walcott.

The ball fell to Bendtner just inside the area but the Dane's first-time shot was weak and straight at a grateful Reina.

Arsenal were clean in on goal again when Emmanuel Eboue beat the offside trap and got away down the right.

However, his low cutback towards Cesc Fabregas was cleared by the retreating Martin Skrtel.

The home side were made to pay with three minutes left to the break when Crouch put Liverpool ahead.

The England striker headed down a long clearance from keeper Pepe Reina, which Benayoun flicked on.

Crouch collected the ball on his chest and turned inside Arsenal captain William Gallas before drilling his shot into the bottom corner from the edge of the area.

After 51 minutes, a run and deflected shot from Walcott led to a corner for Arsenal.

Fabregas floated the ball over to Kolo Toure on the penalty spot, but the defender sent his free header wide.

Former Gunner Jermaine Pennant was booked on 53 minutes for bundling over Armand Traore as the full-back looked to get away down the left and Arsenal were level from the resulting free-kick.

Again Fabregas was the provider as he sent over a deep cross into the six-yard box where Bendtner timed his run towards the near post perfectly and powered a header into the net.

The relief around Emirates Stadium was clear as the Arsenal faithful suddenly found their voice.

Leading scorer Emanuel Adebayor was sent on, replacing full-back Justin Hoyte, for the final 33 minutes as the Gunners reshuffled.

Flamini tested Reina with a low, angled drive from the right side of the area, which the Liverpool goalkeeper held well.

Traore was replaced by Gael Clichy for the last 18 minutes before Almunia had to claw the ball away from under his own bar following Riise's left-wing cross.

Arsenal continued to press for a winner, but could have been caught out only for substitute Andriy Voronin to fire over from 10 yards.

Fernando Torres was introduced for the final 10 minutes, as was Arsenal's Alexander Hleb.

However, there was no way through for the home side, who had to settle for a point, which you suspect will not be enough to stay in the hunt for the title.

Hicks Aims To Take On Parry's Role At Anfield

Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks will seek to replace chief executive Rick Parry if he wins the power struggle at Anfield — but manager Rafa Benitez will be safe.

Hicks was unimpressed by an interview Parry gave last weekend which he regarded as a crude attempt to force through a quick sale of the club to Dubai International Capital.

The Texan has given himself until the end of the season to find investors who would buy George Gillett's shares and leave him in sole control of Liverpool. But he hopes to have some positive news for fans once the club's Champions League tie against Arsenal is completed on Tuesday.

Parry has been chief executive at Anfield for 10 years and went along with the decision of previous owner David Moores to sell the club to Hicks and Gillett rather than DIC.

He now wants the warring Americans to settle their differences and said: 'If they're not able to co-exist then there needs to be a solution where one buys and one sells, or both sell. The ideal would be to move to as speedy a resolution as possible.'

Parry is closer to Gillett, who wants to sell to DIC, than Hicks. He and Moores watched the Champions League 1-1 midweek draw against Arsenal with Gillett's son Foster rather than Hicks, who enjoys Benitez's support.

Rogan Taylor is to ask DIC if his Share Liverpool FC group can buy a minority stakeholding.

Hyypia Happy To Stay At Anfield

Sami Hyypia has agreed a new one-year contract with Liverpool FC that will keep him at Anfield until the summer of 2009.

The 34-year-old Finnish centre-back's previous contract was due to expire at the end of the season but he has now opted to extend his stay at Liverpool to ten years, saying: "I am very happy to have agreed a new deal.

This is a great club with fantastic supporters, so I'm delighted." Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez added: "This is great news for the club – Sami has a lot to offer.

He's a fantastic professional who is an example to all young footballers. He understands the game and is clever. All these things mean he can help other players. He has shown this year how important he is to us on the pitch and he can continue to do that next season."

Hyypiä moved to England from Willem II in 1999 and has since made 440 appearances for the Merseyside team, where he was a key component in the UEFA Champions League-winning side of 2005 and the victorious UEFA Cup team four years earlier.

He played every minute of 57 consecutive European games for the club from November 2001 to February 2006 and, having been rested for Saturday's Premier League match against Arsenal FC, is likely to return to the starting lineup for Tuesday's UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg against the same opponents.

Rafa - Rotation Paying Off

Rafa Benitez believes Liverpool are hitting their peak at the right time because he rested players earlier in the season.

Benitez has been criticised for his rotation policy but he feels it is unfair for him to be singled out.

"I have always said that when Sir Alex Ferguson rests players at Manchester United he is changing his team, yet when I do it I am rotating," he reasoned.

Liverpool have established a six-point lead over Everton in the race for fourth place in the Premier League, while they are also well placed to advance to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League after a 1-1 draw at Arsenal in the first leg of their quarter-final tie.

Benitez insists the secret behind his side's good form is that his key players are all still fresh.

He said: "I explained earlier in the season that if a team wants to win trophies then it is important for a manager to use all his squad. I wanted us to be alive in all the competitions.

"We can only win the Champions League now, but we have a good chance because the players have all had a rest.

"I have used the same group of players now and our form has been good.

"There is some tiredness but physically we can manage.

"When we played Arsenal in the Champions League we got the result because the players were able to work at their peak until the last minute."

Benitez is confident that Liverpool will finish the job against Arsenal at Anfield on Tuesday, but is wary of the threat posed by Arsene Wenger's men.

"I think the hard part has been done, but also we know we have a lot of respect because Arsenal are a very good team and will be dangerous on the counter-attack.

"They showed in the last round, when they drew at home against Milan and won 2-0 at the San Siro, that they can win at difficult places."

Benitez also urged the Liverpool fans to play their part, adding: "It is natural for them to want us to attack because we are at home, but we will also have to be careful because of the way Arsenal play.

"We need the fans to make it a great atmosphere but we also need them to be patient.

"I have confidence in our supporters because they understand the game."

Jose Reina Targeted As Liverpool's Weakest Link

Following the first two evenly contested encounters in their series of three meetings, both the Arsenal and Liverpool managers will be thinking about making minor adjustments to give themselves the advantage in the second leg of their Champions League tie on Tuesday night.

The first leg gave us a far better indication of the strengths and weaknesses of both sides than the starting line-ups in yesterday's Premier League match. Wenger would have been encouraged to see that Liverpool's defensive line lacked cohesion. With Jamie Carragher playing at right-back, the centre-back partnership of Martin Skrtel and Sami Hyypia (who, at 34, has just agreed a contract extension until 2009) failed to gel. Too many times the distance between them, in width or depth, became too big. Although they got away with it, they would have been punished if Arsenal's passing been more precise.

Skrtel, in particular, was dragged into midfield areas, leaving Hyypia exposed. With neither having great pace, the space between them must be kept to a minimum. Whereas Carragher and Hyypia know exactly what each other is doing, Wednesday's partnership didn't have the same communication or telepathic understanding. Yesterday's pairing of Skrtel and Carragher looked better balanced with Steve Finnan at right-back.

Wenger had obviously seen something before these games that suggested that Liverpool were vulnerable to inswinging set-plays. In the first game, he deployed three players to stand on the goal-line to stop Jose Reina coming for the ball and then got them to move out towards the six-yard box as the ball was delivered with pace. While Liverpool's zonal marking should be able to deal with this, their inability to attack the ball has resulted in Emmanuel Adebayor scoring unchallenged in the first game and Nicklas Bendtner doing likewise yesterday. Reina's refusal to come for crosses leaves Liverpool very vulnerable.

Wenger, for his part, will need to decide how to deal with Steven Gerrard's threat. In the first leg, he made little effort to defend as Arsenal built up play but jogged into space so that he could be found as soon as Liverpool regained possession. His role allowed Arsenal's midfield to control the game, but it made him dangerous on the counter-attack as it did when he was sent on yesterday. At Anfield I believe he will move into wider areas so that Mathieu Flamini will not be able to stifle him.

Rafa Benitez will be hoping that Wenger continues to play Philippe Senderos and William Gallas as his centre-halves. Although they coped well with Fernando Torres in the first leg, the Spaniard was isolated for much of the game and will be a different proposition at Anfield. Neither Senderos nor Gallas is quick and, should Gerrard get time on the ball, his understanding with Torres is such that any positional indiscretion will be exploited.

I believe the pace of Kolo Toure will be invaluable to Arsenal and should be used in the centre of defence rather than at right-back. By playing him at full-back, it suggests Wenger has little faith in two of his other players. Emmanuel Eboue was considered a full-back until this season and, with Bacary Sagna injured, he should be the natural replacement - but not in Wenger's mind. Or does he not have faith in Theo Walcott starting important games in the position that Eboue would vacate if he returned to right-back? Neither player impressed yesterday.

Regardless of the 1-1 scoreline in the Champions League tie, I believe both sides will continue to play their natural games. Arsenal will attempt to control possession with their movement and passing ability while Liverpool will remain compact and hope that the quartet of Torres, Gerrard, Ryan Babel and Dirk Kuyt are capable of creating chances with their pace and desire.

Kewell Free To Join Juventus

It’s reported Claudio Ranieri has zeroed in on a summer bargain for Juventus – Harry Kewell could leave Liverpool on a free transfer.

His five-year contract with the Reds expires on June 30 and there are no plans to extend.

The Australian could follow in the footsteps of Hasan Salihamidzic, who was snapped up out of contract from Bayern Munich and has become a key player.

Kewell has made only a handful of appearances at Anfield this season and is struggling to overcome a series of injuries, although he is still only 29.

Confirmation of the Bianconeri’s attraction to Kewell comes from fellow Aussie and current Torino midfielder Vincenzo Grella.

"It hasn't been talked about that much but when I was at Parma with Ranieri he asked for a lot of information about Harry,” Grella told the Herald Sun newspaper in Australia.

"At that stage he didn't talk about a Kewell move to Juventus because he didn't know he was going to become the manager of Juventus.

"He was one of maybe three or four Aussies Ranieri asked me about.

"But he does know of the Aussie players and loves the mentality. He thinks that we're very underestimated as players. It could be an advantage for him."

Turin-based newspaper Tuttosport suggests that Kewell would be a tactically astute signing, as he can play wide left as an alternative to Pavel Nedved or further upfront when needed.

Carragher At Right Back Temporary - Rafinha’s Coming

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez has insisted that Jamie Carragher’s recent conversion to a right-back is only a temporary measure, vowing that he will be bringing in a full back in the summer - believed to be Schalke’s Rafinha.

Carragher was employed by Benitez at right back lat week during Liverpool’s Champions League draw with Arsenal at the Emirates and is set to play there again on Tuesday in the crucial second leg.

The consummate professional Carragher continues to do a fine job at full back even though he has made no secret of his preference to play in the centre.

The move, however, is just a short-term one, promises Rafa Benitez as with Steve Finnan injured and Alvaro Arbeloa out of form.

"I wasn't nervous about asking Carra to play in the position, he knows my idea and also he knows that he needs to work for the team," said Benitez.

"In some games he needs to do this job and I think it is OK. We know that he likes, he prefers to play as a centre-back. But he knows that it is important now for the team his position as right full-back.

"He is the vice-captain so he knows he must be an example for the rest of the players. I was talking with him and he knows my idea about the future, so it is not a problem.

"His future is not as a right back. Finnan was injured and we were using Arbeloa, so I don't have any problem in this position. The only thing is the qualities and conditions of Carra are different to Arbeloa or Finnan.

"I was trying to use Carra because defensively he is more aggressive. That was the idea," Benitez added.

Rafinha could be the replacement, although he has recently penned a deal extension at Schalke. Still, with one immediate first-teamer set to join the fray at Anfield, his name has been mentioned more than once.