Sunday, December 21, 2008

Match Preview: Arsenal vs. LiverpooL

The incentive for breaking into the top four places of the Premier League was vividly illustrated on Friday when the draw for the Champions League Round of 16 was made, and these two residents of England's 'Big Four' were handed mouth-watering ties. Arsenal will play Roma in February, while Liverpool take on Real Madrid, as both English clubs seek to reach the quarter-finals for the second year in succession. Last season, of course, they met each other at that stage of Europe's top club tournament; and on Sunday they meet again for the first time since then, with precious Premier League points at stake.

Current League leaders Liverpool will probably be pleased to be on the road again after their recent dropped points and inhibited displays at Anfield; but then again they may view a trip to the Emirates with some disquiet, having failed to beat Arsenal away in ten attempts since February 2000 (eight Premier League games, one FA Cup tie and a Champions League clash). The Gunners won six and drew four of those; but nevertheless they have still been beaten more often (14 times) and dropped more points (60) in the Premier League against Liverpool, than against any other club.

The two sides were great rivals in the last few seasons of the old Football League, alternating as champions in the four seasons between 1987-88 and 1990-91 - when George Graham and Kenny Dalglish were the respective managers, Alex Ferguson's Manchester United were yet to hit their formidable trophy-winning stride, and Chelsea were nowhere near the top four. The Reds and the Gunners remain major adversaries, as members of the 'Big Four', and there are any number of reasons why Saturday's meeting will have a special resonance.

The Arsenal camp harbour a grievance following last April's Champions League elimination. They claim they were denied a clear penalty towards the end of the Emirates leg when Dirk Kuyt hauled down Alex Hleb in the area. And they feel the penalty awarded to Liverpool for a foul by Kolo Toure on Ryan Babel, immediately after the Gunners had equalised to move ahead in the tie on away goals, was harsh. The fact remains that Liverpool won that epic collision 5-3 on aggregate, and progressed to the semi-finals where they suffered their own torment at the hands of Chelsea.

Arsenal strikers Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor have both suggested that revenge on Sunday would be sweet.

Both Arsenal and Liverpool are unbeaten in their games against fellow Big Four rivals this season. That is another way of saying each can point to a home win against Manchester United and an away win against Chelsea already in this campaign. Obviously both will want to preserve their 100% record in Big Four meetings. But for the Gunners, it has been - and continues to be - a matter of brinkmanship. Whereas Liverpool have been first or second all season, Arsenal's inconsistency has seen them vacillate, and after last weekend's results they found themselves in fifth-place, their Champions League slot having been usurped, at least temporarily, by Aston Villa, whom they meet at Villa Park on Boxing Day.

That means they must again strive to keep their title hopes alive by pulling a win out of the bag against another of the big boys. It was the same when they took on Manchester United and then Chelsea in recent weeks: defeat in either of those games might have effectively ended their aspirations to win a fourth Premier League crown and 14th top-flight title overall. They won; but the value of those epic victories has been undermined by dropped points in other games. Arsenal have already lost five times in the League - to Fulham (away), Hull (home), Stoke (away), Aston Villa (home) and Manchester City (away) - and history suggests they cannot lose any more and still go on to claim the championship. So this weekend they must again take all three points to remain in touch at Christmas.

Yet Liverpool's form has also been less than convincing recently. They remain top, but as much because of the stumblings of their rivals as through the irresistible quality of their own performances. Nevertheless they hold a substantial eight-point lead over their North London hosts, and will be striving to make that eleven.

Arsenal have been hit-and-miss all season. Their seeming inability to string a winning sequence together was again evident at The Riverside last week. They took an early lead through Emmanuel Adebayor in a dominant opening against Middlesbrough, but were pegged back in a 1-1 draw. Indeed, Wenger's side have won only one of their last four games in all competitions.

However, Liverpool are not exactly in outstanding form themselves at the moment: they've drawn three of their last four League games, and will be anxious to start turning those stale-mates into victories that yield maximum points if they are to realise their ambition of lifting a first Premier League crown - their first top-flight title since 1990.

Arsenal striker Adebayor has warned his team-mates against assuming that wins against two of the top teams mean another can be expected against the leaders. “We have to forget about what we have done against Chelsea and Manchester United,” the Togo striker said. "We have done that so the most important thing is just to keep focused against Liverpool.

“If we think because we have beaten Manchester United at home and Chelsea away we are going to win easily against Liverpool then we have got everything wrong. We all know how important this is for the club so we will just try to keep our dreams alive. For us the most important thing is to keep positive. We have a good chance because we play at the Emirates Stadium in front of our own fans. We always play quite well there.

“As a player you dream of playing in these big games. When I was young I had a chance to watch Arsenal against teams like Liverpool and Manchester United. Now I have a chance to be in those games.”

But Liverpool's Alvaro Arbeloa also believes his team can bounce back from their disappointing home draw against Hull and get what they need against the Gunners. He said, “We believe in ourselves and we can get a good result there.”

Liverpool's preparations for this game have been overshadowed by the hospitalisation of manager Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has been bed-ridden following surgery to remove kidney stones, so assistant manager Sammy Lee has been taking training during the week. Lee, though, doesn't think the absence of Benitez has been a major distraction.

He said: "We have already planned what we are going to do so we will just be sticking to that. The main man may not be here, but we have to keep things going so he can just pick up from where he left off when he comes back."

Something else Liverpool have tried to shrug off this week is the speculation surrounding Robbie Keane. The ex-Tottenham striker has been the subject of rumours suggesting he could be leaving the club in January, which the Reds have denied - although he is likely to be named as a substitute again at the Emirates, even through Fernando Torres is still recovering from a hamstring injury.

Twenty seasons ago, uniquely in English League history, the fate of the title was decided in the very last match of the season, Liverpool v Arsenal at Anfield, in which either Liverpool or Arsenal would be crowned champions. Liverpool, who had already won the FA Cup, would win the coveted double if they beat, drew with or even lost to Arsenal by one goal to nil. The Gunners had to win by 2-0 to claim their first title since 1971. And Arsenal, leading 1-0 through Alan Smith from early in the second-half, scored the vital second in the dying minutes to win the championship in the most dramatic finale to any season before or since. Ironically, the scorer of the late, winning goal, Michael Thomas, later left Arsenal to join Liverpool. And Arsenal fans attending Sunday’s game at the Emirates are being urged to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that historic win by wearing yellow shirts – as their team had done on 26 May 1989.

Two of the players likely to be involved in Sunday's game share the distinction of having most shots off target so far this season - Steven Gerrard and Robin van Persie have both racked up 29. Indeed, as a team Liverpool have had the most shots off target - 136. Arsenal's Emmanuel Adebayor shares with Steed Malbranque (Sunderland) the highest number of assists (seven), and Adebayor has also been flagged offside more times than anyone else (32). And Arsenal have had more corners (134) and more woodwork strikes than any other Premier League team. But Pep Reina has kept the most clean-sheets (ten).

Liverpool are seeking their first Premier League win in nine attempts at Arsenal. The last time they won on the Gunners' home patch - which was Highbury at the time - Titi Camara scored in a 1-0 win on 13 February 2000.

Remarkably, the two teams haven't managed an away League win - in London or on Merseyside - in nine meetings, although the Gunners won twice in four days at Anfield in early January 2007, beating Liverpool 3-1 in the FA Cup then 6-3 in the League Cup.

The overall League record between the teams (home and away) is played 168, Arsenal 58 wins, Liverpool 68, Draws 42. In the Premier League only, the record is Arsenal 9 wins, Liverpool 14, Draws 9. At Arsenal only, the Gunners have achieved 37 wins, Liverpool 20, and 27 games have been drawn. In the Premier League at Arsenal, the home team have six wins, Liverpool five, and five have been drawn.

This game is being dedicated by Arsenal to the Teenage Cancer Trust - which means the Gunners' players, staff and directors are all donating a day's wages to the Trust, the club's chosen charity this season. They are aiming to raise £300,000 during the course of the campaign, and there will be other fundraising activities at the Emirates on Sunday.

Manager Arsene Wenger is also supporting the charity by donating a day's wages, and captain, Cesc Fabregas, said: "I encourage all supporters to follow our lead and give what they can. The team and I have met some patients from Teenage Cancer Trust units on several occasions throughout the partnership so far and we're all struck by the strength and courage they show in fighting this disease.

"We understand the importance of these units, which give young people a sense of normality in their lives while being treated for cancer, so we want to ensure we do the best we can for them throughout the whole partnership.

Fabregas added: "The dedicated matchday highlights the work of the charity and gives players, staff and supporters the chance to do something, however small, to reach this target. I visited the Teenage Cancer Trust unit back in August so I know what this means to the charity and the teenagers it helps."



13 Dec (Premier League) v Middlesbrough (A) DREW 1-1
10 Dec (Champions League) v FC Porto (A) LOST 0-2
06 Dec (Premier League) v Wigan (H) WON 1-0
02 Dec (Carling Cup) v Burnley (A) LOST 0-2
30 Nov (Premier League) v Chelsea (A) WON 2-1
25 Nov (Champions League) v Dynamo Kiev (H) WON 1-0


13 Dec (Premier League) v Hull (H) DREW 2-2
09 Dec (Champions League) v PSV Eindhoven (A) WON 3-1
06 Dec (Premier League) v Blackburn (A) WON 3-1
01 Dec (Premier League) v West Ham (H) DREW 0-0
26 Nov (Champions League) v Marseille (H) WON 1-0
22 Nov (Premier League) v Fulham (H) DREW 0-0



Midfielder Samir Nasri could be back following an ankle injury, but defender Kolo Toure is again a doubtful starter with a calf strain. Striker Nicklas Bendtner could be ruled out by a knee problem, but Theo Walcott (shoulder) and Tomas Rosicky (hamstring) are still out, and striker Eduardo suffered a hamstring problem on his return from breaking his leg.

Squad: Almunia, Sagna, Nasri, Gallas, Djourou, Clichy, Denilson, Fabregas, Song, Diaby, Wilshere, Eboue, Fabianski, Vela, Ramsey, Van Persie, Adebayor, Bendtner.


Manager Rafael Benitez could be back on the bench after an operation to remove kidney stones, but at least he has no new injury problems to worry about. Striker Fernando Torres (hamstring) is out for at least one more week, while full-back Fabio Aurelio (calf) may return after three games out. Dirk Kuyt started last weekend's draw with Hull as the main striker, supported from midfield by captain Steven Gerrard, who scored both goals as the Reds staged a dramatic come-back. Defenders Philipp Degen (metatarsal) and Martin Skrtel (knee) remain on the sidelines.

Squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Dossena, Aurelio, Babel, Benayoun, Gerrard, Mascherano, Lucas, Alonso, Riera, Kuyt, Keane, Ngog, Cavalieri, Insua, El Zhar.



Emmanuel Adebayor has scored 11 goals so far this season - and 57 altogether for the club he joined from Monaco in January 2006. He was on target in each of Arsenal's last two league games, netting the winner against Wigan and the Gunners' goal at Middlesbrough. And with Samir Nasri scoring twice in Arsenal 's win over Manchester United, and Robin van Persie grabbing both when they beat Chelsea, Adebayor may fancy his chances of getting on the score-sheet against the third of their big rivals - with a brace? The Togo striker has rehabilitated himself with the Arsenal fans after a summer spent prevaricating over a possible move to Italy or Spain, and he was on target against Liverpool in both legs of last season's Champions League tie.


Steven Gerrard's reputation as an inspirational leader has been further enhanced this season, his drive and determination clearly illustrated a week ago at Anfield when his side were trailing 2-0 to Hull City before he hauled them back into the game with two goals. The midfielder has already contributed 12 goals in all competitions to Liverpool's cause this season, and is likely to play a key role against the Gunners. He more than anyone at Anfield, with the possible exception of fellow-Scouser Jamie Carragher, is desperate to end the Reds' 19-year title drought, and can be expected to drive his team-mates on from midfield on Sunday, rampaging forward in search of a sight of goal whenever he can.

Kuyt Confident Ahead Of Arsenal Clash

Having beaten both Chelsea & Manchester United already this season, Liverpool's Dutch international forward Dirk Kuyt is hoping to add Arsenal to the list today.

Liverpool's Dutch forward Dirk Kuyt is hoping the Reds will use last season's Champions League victory over Arsenal as a springboard for success in the Premier League fixture this afternoon.

The 28-year-old says Liverpool should not be scared ahead of the trip to the Emirates although he realises that last season's results may have no bearing on Sunday.

"When we played there [at Arsenal] in the Champions League it was a good night for all of us because we produced a good performance as a team and managed to get a good 1-1 draw," Kuyt told Liverpool's official website.

"That set us up perfectly for the second leg where we made it through to the semi-finals so we do have good memories of the Emirates from last season but they don't count for anything in this game.

"We know that it will be tough and we will be looking for a similar performance, only this time we will be looking for a win rather than a draw because it is a different situation."

Like Arsenal, Liverpool have beaten both Chelsea and Manchester United in the league this season but find themselves eight points ahead of the Gunners, a lead which Kuyt is hoping to use to their advantage.

"We did really well to beat both Chelsea and Manchester United and now we will be looking to do the same against Arsenal," the former Feyenoord star remarked.

"They are a good team, though, and if you look at their game against Chelsea recently they played really well in that one and got an excellent win.

"But we are confident in ourselves and we know if we play as well as we can we will have a really good chance of getting the kind of result we are looking for."

Having dropped points against some of the less fancied teams in the league, the Dutch international wants Liverpool to push forward now and mount a real title bid.

"We have already sent a message out by beating United and Chelsea and now we just want to win every game.

"That's what it's all about, keeping on going and trying to stay on top of the league.

"We were disappointed not to beat Hull but the game against Arsenal is another big game and our away form is very good so hopefully we can keep that up with another good performance and maybe a positive result."

Tony Barrett: Liverpool Must Figure Out System To Suit Strengths

On Sunday, March 19 2006, Liverpool went to St James’ Park and strolled to a comfortable 3-1 win over Newcastle.

The match will be remembered in the North East for the antics of two Frenchmen, one who wound them up by celebrating a goal and another who wound them up even more by living up to his bungling reputation.

Djibril Cisse attracted the ire of the Gallowgate end by extravagantly enjoying the scoring of a penalty kick, while Jean-Alain Boumsong was given the bird for conceding the penalty from which his fellow countryman put the game beyond any doubt and was promptly sent off.

But for Liverpool fans, the significance of the game was the system Rafa Benitez utilised on the day as the Reds boss deployed a 3-5-2 set up which surprised everyone, not least the Newcastle players.

Daniel Agger, Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher operated as a trio of centre backs with Jan Kromkamp and Stephen Warnock playing as wing backs.

Steven Gerrard took command in central midfield while Peter Crouch and Cisse played up front.

According to the ensuing BBC match report “the system gave Liverpool plenty of attacking fluency”.

The ECHO went further still, pointing out that while the “changed formation had everyone shaking their heads in confusion before kick-off,” it ultimately “worked perfectly”.

There is an old saying in football that it is players that win games, not systems, but on this occasion it was the system that got the most of the players Benitez had available to him as his bold selection paid rich dividends.

No doubt the Reds boss recalls this particular game with great fondness and it might be worth him rooting out a video of it from his stockpile of tapes because it might just provide the solution to Liverpool’s ongoing problems at home.

Not many teams come to Anfield and play all out attack so a flat back four is rarely necessary, particularly if the full backs available are Alvaro Arbeloa who despite performing well this season is rarely a threat in the last third and Andrea Dossena who struggles defensively.

When Martin Skrtel returns to fitness he will have four top class central defenders available, so why not play three of them?

Any one from Dossena, Fabio Aurelio and Albert Riera could operate as a left-sided wing back with fewer defensive responsibilities while Dirk Kuyt and Arbeloa could compete for a place on the right.

A five-man midfield would allow Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso to all get onto the pitch at the same time in positions that suit them.

It would also give Robbie Keane the opportunity to play in his favoured position just off the main striker, a role which is obviously tailor made for Fernando Torres.

So many commentators believe the greatest quality of this Liverpool side is the make up of its spine so surely a system which maximises its strengths yet minimises its weaknesses deserves consideration?

It worked “perfectly” at Newcastle two and a half years ago and could work again because Liverpool undoubtedly have the players to make a success of 3-5-2. Not many teams would fancy coming to Anfield knowing they had to contend with Torres, Gerrard and Keane coming at them from their most favoured positions.

And after three consecutive disappointing draws at home cost the Reds six crucial points anything is worth a try.

Xabi Alonso: My Kop Love Affair

Xabi Alonso has pledged that tomorrow he will show Arsenal what they missed - and repay Liverpool fans for the faith they have shown in him.

With his future uncertain at Anfield last summer, the Spaniard looked on his way to the Emirates as Liverpool pursued England star Gareth Barry.

But the reluctance of Arsenal, and also Juventus, to stump up Rafa Benitez's £16million asking price, coupled with Villa's refusal to let Barry leave, guaranteed Alonso a longer stay at Anfield.

And the midfielder is delighted he has been given a second chance.

With a string of five-star performances that have helped Liverpool to top the Premier League table behind him - there's talk now that Arsenal are ready to find the £16million Liverpool demanded - Alonso has arguably been Anfield's player of the season.

And Anfield, he vows, is where he is staying.

"I feel settled at Liverpool now," said Alonso, a member of Spain's triumphant Euro 2008 squad.

"Once it became clear I was staying, I was happy, and I have just concentrated on giving 100 per cent in every game since.

"I did not spend too much time thinking about Juventus and whether I might end up joining them, or the links with Arsenal. There is no point in that situation until something is actually done.

"I knew for a while after the Euros that there was some uncertainty over my future but I was really pleased nothing came of it and that I was able to continue my Liverpool career. I prefer not to think too much about how I was treated."

Alonso has a great affinity with the Anfield fans after they supported him so vociferously following the Barry affair.

"They couldn't have done more to tell me they wanted me to stay, and I really felt I wanted to go on and do something to pay them all back," he said. "You always want to be important wherever you are. I am very happy now and I am playing regularly. I don't have anything to complain about.

"I could see myself being here a lot of years.

"You have to be happy at the club and the club has to be happy with you. All I can say is that I'm really happy here. There are not many better clubs to play football for than Liverpool."

For Alonso, winning the title would be the perfect way to repay the fans for the incredible backing they gave him but the midfielder is too experienced to be making any wild predictions.

"It is still early in the title race," he said. "But to beat Arsenal would be important because it would show we have improved against the top teams."

Liverpool will again be without Fernando Torres, but Robbie Keane will be lead the line as Benitez chooses to dampen speculation about his future.

Rafael Benitez Must Turn Wheeler-Dealer As Liverpool's American Owners Feel The Pinch

Rafael Benitez will have to sell players to raise funds if he wishes to strengthen Liverpool's squad as the Anfield club prepare for their first real title challenge since 1990.

The club's owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, are unlikely to sanction any significant transfer spending unless Benitez can generate funds by trimming the fat from his squad.

Of more immediate concern to the American duo is the need to service the interest on the £350 million loan taken out this time last year with RBS and troubled US bank Wachovia.

That loan is due to be repaid on Jan 25, although Hicks and Gillett are likely to invoke a clause giving them a six-month extension on the deadline.

City sources believe the banks will accept the delay as long as the interest is being serviced, which will tie up the overwhelming majority of money generated by the club.

Both Hicks and Gillett have been hit hard by the global financial downturn. Hicks is trying to cut the wage bills at both of his US sporting interests, ice hockey's Dallas Stars and baseball team Texas Rangers, while sources in Canada believe Gillett could be tempted to cash in on the Montreal Canadiens.

Neither is in a position to dig deep and help Benitez bolster his playing resources. Rather, the Spaniard will be forced yet again to don his accustomed guise of inveterate wheeler-dealer.

Fringe players like Yossi Benayoun, Daniel Agger and Jermaine Pennant could be offloaded, while big-money summer signings Robbie Keane and Andrea Dossena could also leave after just six months at Anfield.

In their stead would come cover for Fernando Torres, who has seen his second season in England hampered by a succession of injuries.

It was revealed this week that Benitez is finally due to sign a contract extension after a financial package was agreed. The only sticking point now remains his demands for full control of transfer policy and recruitment to the club's Academy.

In straitened times on Merseyside, the latter may prove rather more significant than the former.

What Price English Ownership In The Premier League?

Nina Bracewell-Smith's departure from the Arsenal board brings closer the day when all of England's Champions League entrants are foreign-owned.

Indeed, with the main challengers to the top four, Aston Villa, already American-owned and Manchester City having become a colony of Abu Dhabi, the biggest Premier League club left in English hands could soon be – Lord help us – Newcastle United.

I know what you are thinking: can you take one look at Mike Ashley and, with hand on heart, blame Newcastle supporters for hurling themselves at the feet of any passing sheikh?

There must, one day, be more to the life of a Premier League football fan than begging strangers to buy the family silver, but it seems unlikely given the game's grotesquely bloated economy.

When you have the Icelandic owner of West Ham, Bjorgulfur Gudmundsson, trying to get £250 million for a club he bought for £85 million little over two years ago when confidence was high, you are almost tempted to admire his cheek – until you think of the misery bankers have visited upon us.

So is so-called English football enjoying the last days of an unsustainable boom? It certainly feels like it. Only the odd lonely voice of caution is raised: Gareth Southgate, the intelligent manager of Middlesbrough, who owe their widely acclaimed English owner, Steve Gibson, nearly £70 million, wonders if it might all end in a fall from grace such as that of the Italian game, once Europe's foremost.

Yet the feelgood factor survives. Just as the family man used to chortle ''it's only plastic'' as he booked yet another holiday in Florida, clubs succumb to the pressure to spend.

And we, the fans, await match days such as this: what fun it is to contemplate Liverpool's visit to Arsenal in the knowledge that, for 90 minutes, the issues surrounding American (and possibly Uzbeki) ownership can be forgotten.

Back in the year 2000, when these clubs' links to the Moores and Hill-Wood families were so natural no one gave a thought to them, Liverpool won at Highbury through a goal from Titi Camara.

They have not won away to Arsenal in the Premier League since and the excellent record of Arsene Wenger's team against top-four opposition – Manchester United and Chelsea have already been beaten this season – emphasises the difficulty of their task.

Yet Liverpool, like Chelsea, have lately appeared built for the rigours of travel rather than the subtleties of hosting, and Rafa Benitez's men do have the option of settling for a draw while Arsenal, already beaten five times before the halfway stage, need every point they can wrest.

As Arsenal's losses to the relatively unfancied – Fulham, Hull, Stoke – have mounted, the curious have done some checking and discovered that, since the old First Division was rebranded for the 1992/3 season, the highest number of defeats sustained by champions has been Blackburn's seven in 1994/5. So what?

Statistics are there to be revised and, in any case, calculation of Arsenal's chances of taking the title this season strike me as academic.

Wenger has too lightweight a midfield (the marvellous Cesc Fabregas notwithstanding) and aerially deficient a defence for this campaign to be about much more than making sure they finish in fourth place.

The trip to Villa Park on Boxing Day should be seen as even more important than today's encounter.

In Europe, Arsenal have been handed possibly the most difficult of Italian opponents at the moment in Roma; United and Chelsea should have too much verve for Inter and Juventus, respectively.

The most vulnerable of the Premier League quartet would appear to be, on recent form, Liverpool – Real Madrid should benefit from Juande Ramos' arrival as coach – and yet I still have a fancy for them domestically, even if their football has been superior to that of United only in the Anfield match between the clubs and doubts about Robbie Keane's integration persist.

United have been remarkably consistent, not just this season but for years. It was in April 2005 that they last lost consecutive League matches and this is the sort of form that would promise a hat-trick of titles – but for the additional obligations imposed by their victory in the Champions League final last spring.

They will return from their Tokyo jaunt to Club World Cup to the probability of months of playing catch-up with Liverpool and Chelsea.

At least Sir Alex Ferguson has the comfort of a grudge – the United manager seldom has much difficulty in finding those – after United's humiliation at the hands of the Football Association, who not only found their left-back, Patrice Evra, to have been the main culprit in the scuffle with Chelsea ground staff last season but heaped public scorn on both his testimony and that of Ferguson's assistant, Mike Phelan.

Whether United hold Chelsea partly responsible for Evra's four-match ban in not yet clear. Suffice it to say that the visit of Luiz Felipe Scolari and his team to Old Trafford in three weeks will have an edge and, if the United ground staff were to ask my advice, I'd tell them to make sure the sprinklers are working in case matters become overheated.

When I argue ownership issues, by the way, with officers of the Premier League, they often cite United (American) and Chelsea (Russian) as examples of well run clubs and, when you consider that these emerged as Europe's top two last season, they have a point.

But the time to judge a club's guardian is not while the manager is being given money to spend and the club are enjoying success; it is after he leaves.

Peter Ridsdale was an enormously popular chairman of Leeds, a sort of Steve Gibson of his time, while the club were reaching the Champions League semi-finals – only to leave amid much opprobrium and be obliged to rebuild his reputation at Cardiff. Let's wait and see how the Glazers and Roman Abramovich are remembered.

As I have said here before, it is not the nationalities of these people that worry me so much as the durability of their commitment. In this sense, they are no more alien than Englishmen such as Ashley.

But just ask yourself: what are the chances of the Glazers and Abramovich turning out to have loved United and Chelsea as much as the late Uncle Jack Walker loved Blackburn?

Thoughts of Chelsea at Old Trafford are bound to return to May 2005, when, already sure of their first title under Jose Mourinho, they won 3-1 with near-ease and many of us wondered if this was, as well as the beginning of their spell of dominance through the funding of Abramovich, the end of the Ferguson era at United.

Ferguson had, after all, already been confounded by young Mourinho during Porto's march to the European title the previous season; now Mourinho was invading his domestic territory.

The answer could not have been more stirring. Although Chelsea were champions again the next season, Ferguson's United have staged a magnificent and comprehensive resurgence, not only winning more matches than Chelsea or Arsenal, their previous arch-rivals, but playing football so handsome it can be measured against Arsenal's.

And becoming champions of Europe as well. And helping Cristiano Ronaldo to develop into the world's leading player. And providing the perfect conditions for Wayne Rooney to achieve, if he can, that status. United are, in short, a credit to their country.

Liverpool Edging Closer To Holy Grail, Says Lee

Arsenal may be meeting Liverpool this afternoon at a time when share transactions and bank loans are the prime concern in the respective boardrooms but, as ever, the numbers concerning players, managers and supporters are those achieved on the pitch, which in this case happen to be particularly interesting ones.

Unusually among matches between the acknowledged Big Four (we are not including Aston Villa yet, if Martin O'Neill will pardon us), this one often produces a high score for one side or the other. Arsène Wenger's first experience of the fixture was a 4-2 League Cup defeat back in the days when he still fielded a first team in that competition. Subsequently, Wenger has lost 4-0 (twice), 4-1 and4-2, as well as winning 4-2 and 6-3, that last game inscribed in Gooners folklore as Julio "The Beast" Baptista's match.

Perhaps the explanation is that the two teams are at the same time unpredictable and demonstrably less sound defensively than Chelsea or Manchester United. Arsenal fans are either intrigued or frustrated by not knowing which side will turn up for a given game: the smooth-passing, hard-running collective who remember to finish off all the beautiful work with a shot at goal from time to time; or the lackadaisical, error-prone gang liable to ruin any good work with a gaffe at either end of the pitch.

When they are good – as in this season's classic against United – they are very, very good; and when they are bad, even Wenger sometimes finds it difficult to defend them, as has sometimes been the case in a run of only five goals in eight games – half of them lost – since United and Wigan were swept away at the start of last month.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have been struggling to assert their authority at Anfield while picking off teams such as Blackburn, PSV Eindhoven and Bolton on the break away from home. Not that they find it easier on their travels, the assistant manager, Sammy Lee, insisted while substituting for Rafa Benitez at Friday's weekly media conference.

The accent may be different – pure Scouse – and the delivery more Jamie Carragher velocity than the Spaniard's, but Lee has been a Liverpool man long enough not to insult the club's supporters by suggesting that playing at Anfield was anything less than football heaven.

On the wall of the room in which he was speaking was a long quote from Johan Cruyff extolling the virtues of the Anfield crowd, their famous anthem and what the Dutch master claimed was a unique bond with the team unmatched anywhere. Cruyff must have been as surprised as anyone by successive home draws with Fulham, West Ham and Hull.

Lee said: "No one's happy at losing points, be it home or away, but I wouldn't say we're happierplaying away. We know what teams are going to do when they come to us because we do our homework as well."

Long gone are the days when tactical preparation consisted of Bill Shankly lining the oppos-ing players up on a Subbuteo pitch and then sweeping them to the floor with one dismissive flourish. Even in Lee's time as a Liverpool midfielder, from 1976 to 1986, Boot Room tactics were evolving beyond that. From his position as second-in-command since returning to the club last summer after an unsuccessful spell in charge of Bolton, he asserted that Benitez has gone much further.

"I've had the good fortune to work with a number of good managers but what stands out is his attention to detail, which is phenomenal," Lee said. "Diet, size of training pitches, footwear, kit, travel, hotels, opposition, everything. The attention to detail is key and makes the difference between good managers and great managers. He's very innovative. Very proactive too: you may need to tweak something in a game and that takes knowledge. He's got great know-ledge of the game. Sometimes it's just a little attention to detailthat may be the difference between winning and losing."

Benitez's record against Ars-enal is about even, both in terms of individual games and League positions. Twice he has finished higher in the table – once by as many as 15 points – and twice behind, while reaching two Champions' League finals to Wenger's one. The chances of improving that European record were not harmed for eitherclub by Friday's draw for the knockout stage, pitting Benitez against his ailing compatriots Real Madrid and Arsenal against Roma.

In best Liverpool fashion, however, Lee was not at all keen to talk about a tie that will not take place for two months. If the Champions' League has any relevance this weekend, it will only be in reminding the club of last season's quarter-final, in which they recovered after conceding the opening goal at the Emirates, equalising through Dirk Kuyt – whose confidence has never wavered since that day – then winning an epic second leg 4-2.

For someone who won three successive League titles with Liverpool in a period when backing anyone else was a definition of optimism, it must be a matter of incomprehension that there has not been one since 1990.

They lead the table after 17 games, and Lee knows this is as good a chance as any: "We know what's gone on before. We've got five points more this season, we were fourth or fifth and now we're first. We've never made any false promises but we're closer."

Phil Shaw: Benitez Returns To The Operation In Hand To Test Liverpool's Title-Winning Credentials

When you have gone 19 long years without winning a championship that was once yours as if by divine right, the temptation to clutch at omens is strong. So it was that the hospitalization of Rafael Benitez to have kidney stones removed had Liverpool devotees declaring that the portents were promising for today's visit to Arsenal – and for their prospects of finally winning the Premier League.

In 1992, Graeme Souness emerged from open-heart surgery to guide Liverpool to FA Cup success against Sunderland at Wembley. Nine years later, Gerard Houllier returned after six months way, having gone under the knife for similar reasons, to oversee an emotional victory against Roma. Benitez's recovery will have been hastened by the thought of a Champions League clash with Real Madrid, but there are pressing parochial matters to deal with during the European break and he will be back at the heart of things at the Emirates.

The first meeting of Arsenal and Liverpool since the Spaniard got the better of Arsene Wenger in the Champions League quarter-finals last spring is of potentially seismic significance for Benitez's team. As the campaign approaches the halfway stage, they stand a point clear of Chelsea, whose game at Goodison Park tomorrow will find Liverpool fans for once craving an Everton win. Manchester United, who are moonlighting in Japan, lie six points adrift with a game in hand. Arsenal, squeezed out of the top four by Aston Villa, are eight points off the pace.

Superficially, Arsenal and Liverpool have had similar seasons. Both have beaten Manchester United at home and Chelsea away, only to falter against Fulham, Stoke and Hull. But while Kopites bemoaned a succession of home draws against the latter trio, noting that they would have been seven points ahead had they won (and nine clear had they beaten West Ham at home), Gunners supporters had to stomach defeats by each of them.

There is no shortage of resilience – an attribute occasionally absent from Arsenal's gifted young team – in the Liverpool ranks. As well as having a Celtic-like capacity for important late goals, they have turned losing positions into victories on six occasions and lost only three league fixtures, all away, during the calendar year.

Curiously, though, there is a lack of conviction among the Anfield faithful, almost tangible at times, about recapturing the championship. It is as if they are waiting for results to tail off and for the thoroughbreds from Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge to overtake them. After so long without the prize, the indomitable belief that sent them into overdrive during the reigns of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish is no longer in Liverpool's DNA.

While Benitez twice took La Liga as Valencia coach, none of his charges has won the Premier League. Steven Gerrard possesses the requisite mentality; likewise Fernando Torres. And its spread through the team has been sufficient to defeat their principal rivals even when their world-class duo were injured. But there are still weaknesses, players who cannot perform consistently to the highest standard or, apparently, handle the pressure of playing for Liverpool.

Robbie Keane, who has scored just twice since a £20.3m transfer from Tottenham, may fit into both categories. His was a peculiar signing, and not simply because the price seemed inflated. Keane had tended to flourish as the secondary striker in a 4-4-2 system, whereas Benitez favours a 4-2-3-1 in which Torres, when fit, will invariably be the spearhead.

Yet it may not only be an ill-suited formation that militates against the Irishman. The list of front players who appeared cowed by the magnitude of representing Liverpool includes Fernando Morientes, Craig Bellamy and Emile Heskey. Benitez did find one who scored frequently and did not appear psychologically fazed by the burden of history. In the restless pursuit of perfection, Peter Crouch was sold on.

Keane's dearth of goals, like Dirk Kuyt's modest input, has exposed Liverpool's over-reliance on Torres and Gerrard in the scoring stakes. Even against lowly visitors, Benitez uses two holding midfielders, Javier Mascherano and one-time Arsenal target Xabi Alonso. As well as being an over-cautious strategy for a team with title ambitions, the options for goals from midfield are inevitably reduced, with the Basque's fearsome shooting too rarely seen.

Torres' indisposition has highlighted the need for another top-class finisher. Michael Owen would probably be available from Newcastle, but unless Benitez is bluffing, he has no interest in a player who is no better equipped to play in Liverpool's system than Keane.

In an ideal world, rather than one of financial uncertainty compounded by the mutual antipathy of their American owners, Liverpool might also be looking to replace Andre Dossena, a wing-back ill at ease with the defensive duties of a left-back. The right side of the attacking midfield unit, where Yossi Benayoun or Kuyt feature, is another area requiring attention, although Albert Riera, the August recruit from Espanyol, has made the left-wing berth his own.

Arsenal have a score to settle with Liverpool, whose 4-2 win at Anfield, sealed by two goals in the last four minutes, ended their hopes in Europe eight months ago. Last season, Wenger's team still led the table nearly three months on from where we are now. They played dazzling football, a claim not even Benitez would make for his side, and finished third.

Despite such caveats, playing with the handbrake on has served Liverpool well, and Chelsea and United have both shown fallibility. Meanwhile, the state of Torres' hamstring, rather than Benitez's lower back, will go a long way towards determining whether they can turn their best Premier League start into a first title without recourse to major surgery.