TALKING SPORT WITH NEIL TRAINIS
PUBLISHED: 14:31 03 April 2008 | UPDATED: 12:44 11 August 2010
2008 Getty Images
FOR all the elegance and panache the Champions League brings to a football canvas, there was little to stop the frenzied nature of the domestic game seeping through at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night. In the last decade or so, Arsenal and Liverpo
FOR all the elegance and panache the Champions League brings to a football canvass, there was little to stop the frenzied nature of the domestic game seeping through at the Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
In the last decade or so, Arsenal and Liverpool have held, in the eyes of objective observers, positions of stark contrast when it comes to plotting their way round a football pitch.
Arsène Wenger can be credited with pioneering in the English game fluid, one-touch passing and silky-smooth, exquisite movement, a style of play that their supporters revel in and opposition followers grudgingly admire and wish for their own club.
For Rafael Benitez, a tendency to wear rivals down with defensive resilience and a steely competitiveness in midfield, coupled with an attacking ruthlessness, has characterised his four seasons in charge at Anfield, Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard once describing Liverpool's style of play as "quite physical and tactically disciplined. Once you have seen a couple of their games you know how they play."
Those who crave creative football played with imagination hanker after Wenger's adaptation of the game but between them, Arsenal and Liverpool played out a glamorous Champions League quarter final in the style of Jackson Pollack rather than Leonardo da Vinci.
Not that the result was surprising or particularly unattractive. Two of English football's 'big four' were sent out on to the field with their modus operandi in tact and there was never much danger of either departing from their respective mentalities, though there were slight digressions.
Wenger, his team in a 4-4-1-1 configuration, desired attacking thrusts in support of Emmanuel Adebayor from the likes of Aliaksandr Hleb, Cesc Fàbregas, Mathieu Flamini, Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Eboué and, in the second half, Theo Walcott, the kind of deep-lying force which has brought the Frenchman three Premier League titles and two doubles.
Benitez, conscious of the value of an away goal to take back to Anfield, provided a surprising sense of adventure in a 4-2-3-1, with Dirk Kuyt, who delivered that strike, Steven Gerrard and Ryan Babel all detailed to give Liverpool bite.
Yet whenever they were not in possession of the ball, they, along with Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso as two holding players, harried and shut down the space Arsenal crave to play expansively and they did all those ugly things the football purists cringe at well.
Not that Arsenal were adverse to snapping into their tackles - Flamini guilty of two late challenges that went unpunished in the first half - and closing down avenues of opportunity for Liverpool to get Gerrard into advanced positions to free Fernando Torres, the importance of which Wenger had reiterated to his players in the run-up to the match.
When Gerrard did engineer a few yards of space, the result was devastating, Babel's pass finding the Liverpool captain, who had momentarily escaped the attentions of Flamini, before surging past the stand-in right back Kolo Touré and crossing for Kuyt to bundle in a crucial away goal.
Arsenal found that time to settle on the ball, a luxury they had been afforded by Milan in the previous round at the San Siro, had all but vanished in the congestion of a packed midfield and ricochets that turned into loose balls were contested ferociously.
Anyone who had been deprived of their senses for the last five weeks but allowed to watch this hectic clash might have assumed they were witnessing a midweek Premier League encounter instead of a European encounter.
Cultured football had been replaced by the sheer cup tie-like bedlam only the Premier League can produce as Nicklas Bendtner, in the utter pandemonium during an Arsenal attack, failed to remove himself from the mayhem and inadvertently blocked Fàbregas's shot on Liverpool's goal-line, much to his manager's vexation.
The supporters of both clubs, however, at least have a second leg of pulsating football to look forward to.