Liverpool 4 (Hyypia 30, Torres 69, Gerrard pen 86, Babel 90) Arsenal 2 (Diaby 13, Adebayor 84)
Twenty four hours on, the feeling of complete injustice hasn’t gone away, after a tie that swung both ways in an enthralling match, and was ultimately decided by the softest of soft penalties. Last week Hleb was clearly tugged down, this week Babel went down with Toure trying to get out of the way behind him, and after minimal contact. One was a stonewall penalty, one was absolutely not. And the wrong one was given.
It had all started so well – the first twenty minutes saw Arsenal at their irresistable best, and for once, there was even a goal to show for the dominance, Diaby smashing home after a wonderful passing move. Even Eboue was looking neat and tidy on the right. The control lasted for half an hour, and then for the third time in as many games, Liverpool scored a simple goal against the run of play.
It was a cheap corner to give away, but floated in fairly harmlessly, before Senderos completely lost Hyypia who powered an excellent header into the top corner. Credit to Hyypia, it was a clever run and superb finish, but Senderos should’ve done much better.
Confidence seeped out of Arsenal, and before half time Flamini was forced off with what looked like an Achilles injury. Gilberto came on, and the midfield lost some fluency.
The second half was frenetic, but very few chances were being created until a moment of magic from Torres swung the balance towards Liverpool, turning Senderos and firing past a helpless Almunia. Much as people want to criticise Phil for the goal, it isn’t one that blame can easily be attached to – Torres’ movement was just too quick. Not that hard facts will stop the anti-Senderos bandwagon that has been rumbling on some time.
Van Persie and Walcott came on, and suddenly Liverpool were looking nervous. Adebayor sliced wide when through, and then with seven minutes to go, the moment arrived that should’ve been all over the morning papers today – Walcott picked up the ball on the edge of his own penalty area, stormed up the field on his own, beating five Liverpool players in the process, before squaring for Adebayor to tap home. Such was the panic his run had caused in the defence, we had three players lining up to tuck away his cross.
That would’ve been a glorious way to finish the tie – an Englishman (the press missed that particular point) coming of age on the biggest stage, and finally putting Liverpool out. It was not to be. A minute later, Babel ran into the box before inexplicably going down in a heap, there was minimal contact and certainly no foul from Toure, but this was Anfield and this was the Kop. There was a certain inevitability about the awarding of the spot kick, especially after such a blatant one had been ignored in the first leg. Gerrard tucked it away comfortably.
Babel scored a breakaway fourth in injury time, as the ITV commentators once again lost grip of reality, claiming that it ‘made the penalty not matter anymore’. Really? I somehow doubt that at 2-2, leading on away goals, and exhausted Cesc would’ve been the only Arsenal player in his own half in injury time. Honestly, these ‘experts’ don’t half talk rubbish.
To make matters worse, they were criticising Arbeloa after the game for not accepting a booking by deliberately hauling Walcott down on the half way line during his stunning run. What advocates they are – witnessing one of the finest games of the season, played in an excellent spirit by both teams, and they’re promoting deliberate and cynical fouling to the nation. Take a bow, you idiots.
When the final whistle went, there was a disbelief in Wenger’s eyes, mirrored on the faces of the Arsenal fans who had made the trip. Much the better side in the first leg, they got the away goal in a dominant opening spell in the return, then the second away goal when it mattered, and yet somehow Liverpool snatched it away again.
The papers are all trying to claim that Wenger solely blamed the ref for the defeat, which is ridiculous because he was specifically not doing that, saying that although the penalty was a gift these things have to be accepted. He’s right, but it doesn’t make it any less galling that the goal that won the tie should never have been scored. Had the correct calls been made in both legs, Liverpool would almost certainly be out now.
But what mustn’t be forgotten is that Liverpool scored five times in the tie. The referee may have gifted them goal number four, and indirectly the fifth that came at the end, but the first three goals were legitimate, and they had something else in common – they were all avoidable, especially Hyypia’s last night and Kuyt’s in the first leg.
Without those defensive lapses, the poor standard of officiating wouldn’t have mattered. Does that make it any less infuriating that we feel so robbed today? Of course not, but it does point towards the action that needs to be taken in the summer. This isn’t a call for drastic squad changes, as we’ve seen so much good stuff this season, but the depth isn’t there. Small tweaks, Arsene.
I’m usually one for optimism, but even I’m not going to claim that we’re still in the title race, no matter what Wenger wants his players to believe. United will have their stars rested for Sunday, as they left some big names out tonight, so it seems like a good time to give the fringe players a game – are exhausted and deflated first teamers likely to get a better result that hungry fresher reserves?
It’s time to build for next season now. But for all the disappointments of the past couple of months, this one has been much more like it. Don’t forget that.