Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Champions League Preview: LiverpooL vs. Arsenal

Here we go again, onto Anfield and the third instalment of this fascinating trilogy. The sides have already played out two 1-1 draws at the Emirates in less than a week and now the action moves from north London to Liverpool where the home side look to hold a slight edge with an away goal in the bank and a fervent home support behind them.

The Premier League game on Saturday between the two sides saw both managers take the opportunity to rest players ahead of the second leg. Benitez surprised most people by making eight changes to his side and ensuring danger men Torres, Gerrard, Kuyt and Babel were well rested ahead of Tuesday night’s rematch.

For Arsenal, with the title still a possibility, there were less changes to the side. Hleb, Clichy and Adebayor all started on the bench but were forced into the fray after Liverpool had taken the lead.

As a much weakened Liverpool side managed to again hold Arsenal to a draw at the Emirates, it has been suggested that Liverpool hold the psychological advantage heading into the second leg. Certainly their superior European record and the fact they have an away goal will help the home side, as well the infamous Anfield crowd.

Arsenal’s youth has been much vaunted and praised this season but it may be their undoing in the second leg. Certainly they will need their more experienced players such as Gallas and Toure to be at their best if they are to make it into the semi-finals.
As the teams have already played each other three times this season and drawn on each occasion it is perhaps reasonable to assume the tie could end up honours even once again. This is something neither team will mind too much as, depending on the score line, a draw could send either side through to the next round.

Having scored at the Emirates, Liverpool will know that a 0-0 draw will be enough to take them through to the semi-finals. However Rafa Benitez will also know that that is a dangerous tactic to go for, especially against a team with the attacking prowess of Arsenal.

A 1-1 draw will take the tie into extra-time and possibly penalties and seeing as the sides have already played out this score line three times this season, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see it again.

Anything more than a goal each and the tie suddenly swings in Arsenal’s favour. A 2-2 draw or above will see Liverpool’s one away goal at the Emirates all but forgotten and the Gunners triumph.

Of course if the match does go the way of the previous three then Arsene Wenger’s side will need to have practised their penalties. Liverpool’s record at penalty shoot-outs is nothing short of phenomenal having lost just once on penalties in 11 attempts (against Wimbledon in the League Cup in 1993).

Some of the Reds most recent triumphs have come from the penalty spot, as they took both the FA Cup Final against West Ham in 2006 and the Champions League final against AC Milan in 2005 on spot kicks. If after 120 minutes there is still nothing between the sides, Benitez’s men will not be afraid to win the tie from the penalty spot.



5 April (Premier League) v Arsenal (A) DREW 1-1
2 April (Champions League) v Arsenal (A) DREW 1-0
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


5 April (Premier League) v Liverpool (h) DREW 1-1
2 April (Champions League) v Liverpool (h) DREW 1-0
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



Rafa Benitez surprised everyone by making eight changes for the league game at the Emirates but don’t expect him to keep the same team for the second leg. Torres, Gerrard, Alonso, Kuyt, Babel and Skrtel should all return after being rested at the weekend and expect Mascherano to return after suspension. Saturday’s goal scorer Peter Crouch may have to settle for a spot on the bench.

Liverpool last Starting XI (v Arsenal): Reina, Finnan, Carragher, Skrtel, Arbeloa, Plessis, Pennant, Benayoun, Lucas, Riise, Crouch


Arsene Wenger made five changes for the league game against Liverpool but expect his big hitters back for this match. Adebayor, Hleb and Clichy who all started on the bench on Saturday should be back in the first XI. Robin Van Persie is still struggling with injury so Bendtner may retain his place up front.

Arsenal last Starting XI (v Liverpool): Arsenal: Almunia, Justin Hoyte, Gallas, Toure, Traore, Eboue, Fabregas, Silva, Flamini, Bendtner, Walcott.


Liverpool: Dirk Kuyt

Whilst Fernando Torres has been, quite rightly, taking most of the plaudits the much-derided Dirk Kuyt could be the man to watch against Arsenal. He had an eventful first leg, scoring the equaliser and being lucky not to give away a penalty. However the Dutchman is the man to watch in Europe, not only is he Liverpool’s leading scorer in Europe this season with six goals he also has seven goals in his last ten European appearances.

Arsenal: Cesc Fabregas

The little Spaniard has looked tired in recent weeks but he is still probably one of the first names on the Arsenal team sheet. In the last round against AC Milan in the San Siro he produced a match-winning performance that took his team into the quarter finals. If the Gunners are going to triumph again, Wenger will need his midfield maestro to pull a similar performance out of the bag again.

Rafa: Winning Isn't Everything... It's The Only Thing

Rafael Benitez knows that tonight's Champions League showdown with Arsenal will make or break both clubs' seasons.

But the Liverpool manager says that should his side lose, and see a campaign that started with such hope crumble into a meaningless meander, he can not be judged on this one roll of the dice.

The Spaniard claims to see a bigger picture emerging at Anfield, a subtle masterpiece in which his side are developing the winning mentality that made the club great in the 70s and 80s, but was lost in the wilderness years of the 1990s.

And Benitez believes that his own 'win at all costs' mindset, created during his 20 years at Real Madrid, is beginning to filter through to his current players.

The coach revealed that even when playing games with his young daughters Claudia and Agnetha, he cannot bring himself to let them win.

"I have always been like that since I was little myself. I hated to lose. Ask my wife. She says to me 'you never let the girls win at anything', and it is true," Benitez explained. "Maybe sometimes I let the little one win once, but with the older one I always try to win.

"I was 10 years as a player and 10 years as a coach in the Real Madrid system, and finishing second there wasn't enough.

"I think that is why I have that mentality always to win. I am not nervous about pressure, I am not worried about having to win because it is part of the job. And I think we are introducing the same mentality back to the players here, where they used to have it always of course."

Benitez recognises that tonight's Champions League encounter with Arsenal will consign one of the sides to a season of relative failure, and the resulting ridicule that failing to match preseason expectations will bring.

He knows that much was expected of Liverpool during this campaign, but should they be left with only fourth place in the league to aim at, then it would be his side's worst performance during his four-year reign at the club.

But he claims that would be the wrong way to look at things. He believes he is developing the current crop of Anfield players into winners who can emulate their illustrious predecessors.

"You have to look at the bigger picture. Of course, if you win the Champions League then people will say fantastic, you are going in the right direction. And if you lose then they will say it is bad, you are not progressing, but it is not like that. Our future doesn't depend purely on this one game. Win or lose we are still progressing, we are bringing young players into the side with a winning mentality, our young reserve team is winning and our future is strong.

"You can see we have a winning mentality. We have won cups, we have got to finals, we have shown in the Champions League we are a side who can beat the best teams and we are a side that is feared. "And I believe that mentality is growing stronger every year.

"It is hard when you cannot take on Manchester United and Chelsea in the transfer market, but it is a question of finding the right players with the right mentality. We have some players with a clear winning mentality. If we want to keep that, then we have to win more trophies."

Benitez offered a revealing insight into his own outlook when he looked back on the Real Madrid European final that had the most impact on him, as a supporter, player and coach of the club.

For all their nine triumphs in the European Cup, he remembers their defeat to Liverpool in the Paris final of 1981 the most - when Alan Kennedy gave the Reds a 1-0 win.

"I still have that game on Betamax tape. Liverpool ruined my day then because I hate to lose. I hate it. The Real team had players I grew up with and played alongside and it was a sad moment," he explained.

"The keeper was Augustin Rodriguez who made the mistake. After 20 years of always winning, always having to win, you have a mentality and that influences my work as a coach.

"Because of the history of this club, the winning mentality they always used to have, people say we have to win more.

"But we need to understand that after some years of not winning trophies we are clearly rebuilding that," he explained.

"I think we can introduce it again - we are introducing it again - you can see the hunger of some of the players now and that is the key.

"Every day we analyse everything and every small detail and keep pushing, pushing the players if they make mistakes.

"It is the only way we can compete against the money of Manchester United and Chelsea, and we are becoming winners again."


Liverpool are 4/7 favourites, with Arsenal 5/4. The Gunners are 4/1 to be awarded a penalty - a bet Arsene Wenger might not want to take after the last two controversial games! The bookies offer 5/1 that the game again ends in a 1-1 draw after 90 minutes.

Rafa Happy With Progress

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez believes the club are moving in the right direction under his guidance.

Ahead of Tuesday's UEFA Champions League quarter-final second leg clash with Arsenal, Benitez's future at Anfield has again come under the microscope with Europe's premier competition being Liverpool's only chance of silverware this season.

Benitez's future at Anfield has been the subject of speculation for some time after a much-publicised bust-up with the club's American owners last year.

Despite another disappointing Premier League campaign, Benitez feels Liverpool are progressing under him as they look to reach their third Champions League semi-final in four seasons.

"Really, when you are in this position, it means that something is good," Benitez told The Times. "It doesn't depend on one game - whether you are doing things good or bad. We know because we are here, we are not bad.

"We know we need to be more consistent in the Premier League, but the team now is fit. I am not the kind of manager who will change my opinion for one game.

"As a manager you must be consistent. I think we are going in the right direction, so one game will not change my idea."

Benitez also played down suggestions that the game against Arsenal could decide his future at the club.

"It's not easy to talk about the Champions League and what that means in terms of money for the big picture," added Benitez.

"But at least the professionals will need to know it's not one game that determines the idea and the future.

"We want to win, but not because we need to prove we are doing the right thing. It's clear we are moving in the right direction: the reserve team is winning the league, we have a lot of good young players coming in and, with players like Ryan Babel, Lucas Leiva, [Javier] Mascherano, [Daniel] Agger and [Martin] Skrtel, that is clear.

"If you win, everyone will say: 'Oh, fantastic, this is the right way' and if you lose they will say: 'It's not the right way', but I think everyone knows we are going in the right direction."

Rafa Benitez: We Can't Afford To Play It Safe Against Arsenal

Rafa Benitez fears Arsenal's goal threat at Anfield tonight and insists his side will go all out to reach the Champions League semi-final.

Benitez said yesterday that despite holding a vital away goal after the 1-1 draw at the Emirates, the Gunners' potency means his men cannot afford to be defensive. A goalless draw will be enough for the Reds to go through.

But Benitez wants his side to go for the throat. He said: "Arsenal usually score goals in the league," he said last night. "Manchester United's result helped a lot. If they had won, I'd have thought we couldn't, but now I still believe we'll do it.

"Defeat against Liverpool is not unthinkable. You have to accept you might lose, but what is important is that you can believe you can win. But if I didn't believe we could win the Champions League, I wouldn't be sitting here.

"We did have a dip recently, we can't deny that. But football is strange sometimes. We've dropped a few points, but we've been consistent since the beginning of the season.

"So it's possible we can win the last five games. I said that before the Liverpool game as well, but I said five games and one draw would make it. It's compulsory we win at Old Trafford on Sunday."

Arsenal need a near-miracle to save their once-promising season from collapse but Wenger clearly has faith his players can repeat the heroics that gave them victory at AC Milan in the last round.

He admitted he was becoming increasingly frustrated at his team's stuttering form, but insisted that despite his touchline histrionics against Liverpool on Saturday, he was not cracking up.

Wenger, whose side have not won a trophy for three years, said: "I'm physically agitated more because I want to score the goals rather than because I'm really nervous. It's not because I've not won anything for a long time. If I'd won every trophy last year, I'd be the same."

Arsenal will have to score in tonight's second leg, with Liverpool having left the Emirates with a 1-1 draw last week.

"We have belief we can win everywhere in the world," Wenger added. "We'll need a similar spirit to Milan. I believe we have to go into the game with the same positive attitude.

"Both teams will be under pressure, but that's normal at this stage of a season.

"I believe my team can win. I believe in the quality of my team and the quality of my players."

Striker Emmanuel Adebayor was also sure the team could rise to the occasion. "We still have big belief we can do it," said the Gunners star.

Reserves Crowned Champions, Thanks To Nemeth Strike

Congratulations go out to Liverpool Reserves after they secured the Barclays Premier Reserve League North title with a 1-0 win over Blackburn last night.

A real buzz of excitement has been growing among Reds fans who have been keeping a close eye on the excellent progress of Gary Ablett's young side this season.

Just last month a fine set of performances saw the young Reds return from America with the Dallas Cup and now they've secured the domestic league with two games to spare.

Ablett's side went into the game knowing victory would guarentee them the trophy and a stunning strike from Hungarian striker Krisztian Nemeth proved enough.

The presentation of the trophy will take place after Thursday's match against Manchester City at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.

Well done lads.

How pleased are you to see Liverpool's youngsters doing so well? Damien Plessis made his first-team bow at the weekend, but do you think we may see more debuts before the season's out? And, if so, who is next in line?