Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Crouch Comes Under Starter's Orders And May Prove A Stayer After Fine Display

Another chapter in Anfield's rich European history owed much to another hand expertly played in the Champions League by Rafael Benítez. Arsenal will rue the lapse in concentration that squandered this tie for as long as it takes to lift their first European Cup or the time it takes the Liverpool manager to display a weakness that compares. The former would appear the shorter wait.

On a night when even a brilliant execution from Fernando Torres was relegated to the margins by the dramatic shift in fortunes at Anfield, it was the Liverpool manager's cold, considered use of his occasional forwards which tipped the balance towards a third semi-final appearance in four seasons.

Abandoning the formation that had revived Liverpool's season to accommodate Peter Crouch, he later abandoned the England centre-forward's tireless effort in favour of the pace of Ryan Babel. The selections and the timing of the change worked to perfection for Liverpool. Here was an unexpectedly bold starting line-up and at no point in a fluctuating tie did Benítez try to protect a slender advantage.

"We knew Crouch had scored a hat-trick against Arsenal here last season and he was really good against them the other day," he said. "He scored against them again and was always a threat. We tried to use that threat and profit from his ability in the air, the pace of Torres and the movement of Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt."

There was genuine shock at Crouch's inclusion inside the stadium when the teams were announced, and nowhere greater than in the Liverpool dressing room and inside the squad's No15 shirt. "It's pretty clear I probably won't start," said the 27-year-old after Saturday's man-of-the-match performance at the Emirates Stadium, his latest impressive display against a defence punctured five times by him in five previous starts. Though he agreed Torres had to be the choice to lead the line in Benítez's 4-2-3-1 formation, the surprise at finally earning reward from the manager must have been profound.

If there was unease at Benítez's selection before kick-off it centred on changing the system that repaired the club's campaign after the Cup defeat by Barnsley, Crouch's last start before the weekend, rather than the inclusion of the centre-forward whose frustration at starting only 18 times before last night announced itself at the weekend. "I would love to stay; it is a fantastic club and I love everything about it, but I have to be realistic," Crouch said on Saturday. "If I want to have aspirations of playing for England or furthering my career, I have to be playing and that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment."

Perhaps last night's return to the fold will influence that outlook but career decisions can wait. Crouch offered a remedy to the failings Benítez had identified in his team's first-leg display, with the Spaniard bemoaning the cheap possession given away in attack, goals conceded at set pieces and the relative comfort of William Gallas and Philippe Senderos in defence. They were never afforded that luxury here, Crouch unsettling Senderos instantly from José Reina's clearance and, though often moving into Torres's territorial domain, fashioning Liverpool's only chances until Sami Hyypia's header turned the momentum back in their favour.

Gerrard, Kuyt and Torres all nearly capitalised on Crouch's distribution before Benítez paid the £7m man his finest compliment by reverting to 4-2-3-1 and asking the Englishman, and not the Spaniard, to lead the line. A flick that gave Torres the chance for his outstanding strike returned the favour and, though his disappointment at being replaced was palpable, a standing ovation soothed it, along with the impact of his replacement.

"We needed pace and the ability to run at defenders in the final minutes because I could see that Torres was tiring," said Benítez. Again his decision was to be vindicated. Babel has shown flashes of excellence laced with erratic decision-making and distribution but he made that criticism redundant here, winning the penalty and scoring the fourth that sent Benítez onwards again.

Belief Pulled Reds Through, Says Relieved Benítez

Rafael Benítez claimed that Liverpool's greater belief, not penalty decisions or superior European experience, was the principal reason for their place in the Champions League semi-finals and Arsenal's demise at Anfield last night.

The Liverpool manager faces Chelsea for the fourth successive season in the Champions League after maintaining his own remarkable European record on a pulsating night at Anfield, a sequence he insisted was owed entirely to his players' refusal to wilt when Emmanuel Adebayor equalised six minutes from time.

"This was a victory for belief," said Benítez, in the semi-finals for a third time in four seasons. "I don't think our extra experience counted. Arsenal were in the final themselves two seasons ago, but the difference was in the belief of the players. The way they [Arsenal] scored their second goal was really disappointing but I am very happy with the reaction to it."

Benítez's initial reaction to Adebayor's strike was to bring on the Ukrainian forward Andriy Voronin. But, with the substitute Ryan Babel hauled to the ground by William Gallas 60 seconds later, he was able to savour an extraordinary finale.

"We are very relieved," he admitted. "It has been a really difficult tie. We started really bad tonight, but the second half was much better and we believed we had the quality even when they scored first. I am going to enjoy tonight before I think of Chelsea. That is going to be a tough, tough game."

Arsène Wenger's task now is to lift Arsenal after the prospect of a third trophyless season moved closer to realisation. "It'll be very difficult to lift the players because they are extremely disappointed because they feel hard done by over the two games," said the Arsenal manager. "We'll try to finish strongly. We have a feeling of disappointment and injustice tonight, which makes it doubly difficult."

The deflation clearly extended to the Frenchman himself, although he denied that Arsenal had lost their last realistic hope of silverware this season because of a lack of mental strength. "We should have scored before we equalised," he lamented. "We had a clear-cut chance, completely on our own in the box, to score a third and kill them off."

It's Liverpool v Chelsea Again

Steven Gerrard kept his nerve on a night of high drama to score an 86th-minute penalty as Liverpool beat Arsenal last night to set up a Champions League semi-final re-match with Chelsea.

Gerrard scored in front of the Kop two minutes after Emmanuel Adebayor had kept Arsenal's season alive by levelling on the night and putting his side ahead on the away goals rule. The striker's tap-in followed an electric 70-yard run from Theo Walcott.

But it was to be in vain as Kolo Toure brought down Ryan Babel for Gerrard's penalty. Gerrard said: "It's up there with the other great European nights at Anfield. I was confident I could score but it was one of my worst performances."

Arsenal's season, which had promised so much, now looks set to end without any silverware.

Liverpool finished with a goal by Babel as they won 4-2 to go through 5-3 on aggregate.

At Stamford Bridge, Michael Ballack and Frank Lampard scored as Chelsea beat Fenerbahce 2-0, to set up a third Champions League semi-final against Liverpool in four seasons. Liverpool won the previous two.

At Anfield last night, Abou Diaby had given Arsenal a 13th-minute lead, but Sami Hyypia equalised with a header. Fernando Torres fired Liverpool in front before Adebayor's goal heralded a dramatic finale.

Rafa's Anfield Aces Are 4-Some

Steve Gerrard scored the penalty which broke Arsenal’s hearts in a Champions League thriller at Anfield.

The Gunners, trailing 2-1 after a second-half strike from Fernando Torres, thought they had snatched a semi-final place when they equalised.

Theo Walcott ran past four defenders in a scintillating burst from his own area before squaring the ball for Emmanuel Adebayor to make it 2-2 after 84 minutes.

But a minute later Kolo Toure was ruled to have brought down Ryan Babel and skipper Gerrard confidently planted home the penalty to book a semi-final with Chelsea.

Babel then finished off Arsenal as they chased an equaliser when he broke clear with Cesc Fabregas trailing in his wake to make it 4-2 in the 90th minute.

Abou Diaby and Sami Hyypia had kept the game on a knife-edge with goals in the first half as Liverpool and Arsenal slugged out this European battle of the Premier League.

But after 69 minutes Torres broke the deadlock with a right-foot strike after turning Philippe Senderos. That was just the start of a gripping finale.

Arsene Wenger had talked about this being Arsenal’s ‘moment of truth’.

The Gunners manager faced the biggest challenge of his career with this third of three games against Liverpool, followed by a Premier League match against Manchester United on Sunday.

But after two 1-1 draws in a row against Liverpool, he had gone into this game knowing the Gunners’ season was on the verge of collapse.

Wenger’s response was to claim boldly that his team were still on course for an incredible League and European Cup double, despite the fact they had only won two out of their last 11 games.

Injury has recently hit the Arsenal team with Eduardo and Tomasz Rosicky ruled out for the season.

Robin van Persie was only on the bench after failing to recover fully from his thigh injury.

It meant Alexander Hleb started just behind Adebayor, who scored the opening goal in the first leg last week.

Wenger decided to keep Toure at right-back with Senderos alongside William Gallas.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez was adamant before kick-off that Arsenal were going to score.

It is the only thing that can explain why he took the bold decision to hand Peter Crouch his first start in the Champions League since November when Liverpool beat Besiktas 8-0.

Crouch played well against Arsenal at the weekend in the League game and Benitez obviously wanted him to repeat his performance last night alongside Torres.

It was only the fifth time this season that the pair had started together.

Given that Crouch talked after the game at the weekend about having to quit the club for more regular football, last night’s team selection was ironic.

Mind you, Gerrard would not have been happy. In his programme notes he talked about the team needing to get more out of whoever was on the left.

He would never have imagined that was where he would be starting the biggest game of Liverpool’s season.

For the past two months he has been operating just behind Torres, creating a partnership which has led to Liverpool running riot.

Benitez’s assumption that Arsenal were going to score seemed negative given that in two semi-finals against Chelsea at Anfield his side had not conceded a goal. But he was spot on as his side fell behind in the 13th minute.

The Gunners came flying out of the traps, perhaps spurred on by the wonderful Anfield atmosphere.

Wenger’s team swarmed all over Liverpool and it paid off immediately.

Adebayor stormed down the left and angled a ball back for Fabregas. Before he could take aim, the ball was poked away by fellow Spaniard Xabi Alonso.

It only came out to Mathieu Flamini, who chested it down and played on despite the Kop screaming handball.

Liverpool seemed to lose their concentration for a split second as the ball came out to Diaby on the right and he smashed his shot past Pepe Reina at the near post.

It was a great strike but the ball went in off Reina and there was no way Liverpool’s keeper should have been beaten so easily.

Arsenal had control and could have grabbed a second if Reina had not finally come to his senses Diaby crossed from the left for Adebayor and as the Togo ace looked ready to pounce, the keeper managed to punch the ball away.

Liverpool were struggling to get into the game with their altered set-up. Fabio Aurelio saw Liverpool’s first shot fly over the bar in the 24th minute but from the Reds’ next attack the full-back forced a corner.

Alonso swung the ball in and Hyypia rose to arc his header into the top right-hand corner of Almunia’s goal.

Senderos was at fault as he lost the veteran defender at the flag-kick and Fabregas, on the line, could not prevent the ball going in.

It was dreadful defending by the Swiss centre-half, but it was exactly what Liverpool needed as they were being passed to death in midfield.

Hyypia has now scored in three separate European Cup quarter-finals, having got on the scoresheet against Juventus and PSV Eindhoven. It was also a perfect way to celebrate signing a new one-year contract.

Wenger’s side suffered another blow as Flamini turned an ankle in a challenge with Gerrard and had to be carried off with three minutes of the first half left, to be replaced by Gilberto.

Dropped, Wins Penalty And Scores – A Crazy Evening For Babel

Ryan Babel has found Liverpool a bewildering kind of place in the past 12 months. He has often resorted to dodging the ice baths which his manger insists his players take after games and admits he has found rotation difficult to deal with.

But nothing could have prepared him for the crazy events of this crazy night. First he is dropped to allow Steven Gerrard the left wing birth he detests, then he watches Theo Walcott skip past five of his Liverpool team-mates to set up Emmanuel Adebayor's equaliser. Then he finishes off Arsenal single-handedly – winning a penalty in a tangle with Kolo Touré and running 20 yards to dispatch a goal of his own.

"Physically I'm not yet at the point that I'm able to play 90 minutes in the crazy tempo of the Premier League," Babel said recently. "Even against the smaller clubs it's difficult for me." But if every 10 minutes on the field gets results like this then Benitez will be more sparing with him again.

This was a priceless substitution made by a manager whose decision-making had proved rather less than convincing as the night wore on. Benitez decided he would fiddle, even in the game which would effectively end the season of one or other of the sides. So much for all the value of the legendary Anfield 12th man – the vocal Liverpool faithful which, even as the sides lined up, had Arsenal's players exchanging nervous glances. Benitez banked on his nearly man, Peter Crouch. For 10 minutes, the Spaniard appeared to have been vindicated.

That was the time it took Crouch to win half a dozen headers, reducing Philippe Senderos to pulp and even making William Gallas wonder whether it was really worth marking him. But Adebayor was threatening even more. Twice, he was narrowly ruled offside as he raced through the central channel off Sami Hyypia's shoulder. Then a turn of pace which took him past Jamie Carragher proved decisive in the move leading to Abou Diaby's thumping opener.

There were some anxious faces around Anfield in the half hour after that. When Mathieu Flamini was carried off with an ankle injury Benitez, notebook in hand, placed his hands on Alonso's shoulders to force his point.

Crouch had more than validated his appearance before setting up Liverpool's second goal, with another mighty jump which put Fernando Torres through. Torres then showed, with the exquisite two right-foot touches which he needed to swivel around Senderos and the third which sent an electrifying shot past Manuel Almunia, why Crouch might always struggle for a place here.

But a night whose closing stages defy much tactical talk belonged to Babel. "We needed pace and ability. I could see Torres was tired," Benitez said of the Dutchman's introduction last night and his late contribution assigns him a place in Anfield legend.