Wednesday, April 9, 2008

On Those European Nights, On the Pitch at Anfield...

The opening track on Godspeed You! Black Emperor's sophomore album Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antenna's to Heaven is probably the only close description of what watching Liverpool play Arsenal at Anfield in the quarterfinals of the Champions League last night. What began with a nervous internal quiet built to gloriously ecstatic cresendo in an absolute thriller of a contest. It was the 2nd leg following an enthralling 1-1 draw on Arsenal's turf 6 days prior. While most of the press would deem this 'advantage Liverpool' because of the away goal, I found myself nervous all day yesterday.

Most football and Premiership fans know that Arsenal play a brand of the game that is a class above the reds. I'm not even a supporter but I can't resist watching the gunners play every week. I never got to see Ajax play in the 70s, so this could be as close as I'll get. Sure, the argument could be made for Manchester United as well, but Ajax's Total Football was an ideal that stated no one player was more important than another - even with Johann Cruyff clearly in the driver's seat of that team, he could be subbed and play would run the same. While Manchester United do play fabulous, free-flowing and downright fierce on the attack, without Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on the pitch, it's just not the same.

Back to my point, I was nervous because Arsenal know how to run at teams and keep their ability to pass short and long with pace in tact. Even with the horrific injury to Eduardo earlier in '08, Sagna in the previous week or so and Van Persie succumbing once again to the treatment table, I knew that it was only matter of time before Arsene Wenger had his men performing their artistic beauty on the field. I was also on edge because Liverpool at times cannot keep up with that. They buckle like a belt against Man United every year in the league because of their workman-like approach and while they may not lose to Arsenal, they don't win either. Last year, the 8-foot toothpick Peter Crouch scored a perfect hat trick in a win over Arsenal that I couldn't see coming. There was no way to see it because in both cups, Wenger's men came to Anfield twice and smacked us around like seniors to freshmen in high school - 6-3 in the Carling Cup and 3-0 in the FA Cup if I remember correctly.

The game kicked off with a rumble in my head. It felt kind of like in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the boulder got rolling. I knew there was no way to turn back. Arsenal opened scoring in the 13th minute with a great run by Abou Diaby as he dribbled by Xabi Alonso and the recently acquired Martin Skrtel and delivered a goal of of keeper Pepe Reina's left hand. Immediately nerves set in and the voices in the back of my head chanted "The reds are going out." It took a long 18 minutes for an equalizer to come from Liverpool, but Sami Hyypia delivered a decent reason for a contract extension. He found space in the box on Steven Gerrard's corner and arced a header into the back of the net. We go to the break at a tension-filled 1-1.

In the 2nd half, both teams came out intent on winning the match. Arsenal set on its attacking flare with Liverpool doing absolutely everything possible to keep it at their preferred pace. In the 69th, a hard pass forward was gathered by Fernando Torres only for him to quickly turn around Philipe Senderos and Kolo Toure and put a beautiful shot by Manuel Almunia with absolute class. The roar from the Anfield crowd was unlike anything I'd heard before as was the joy on the Liverpool players' faces the picture of pure happiness.

Then, in the 83rd, the Arsenal sub Theo Walcott showed why he has had a hype machine surrounding him since World Cup 2006. After gathering the ball just outside the box in his own half he proceded to, over an 80-yard run, leave 3 red shirts in the dust to set up Emanuel Adebayor for an easy shot into the back of the net. Then, super sub Ryan Babel charged into the Arsenal box only for Kolo Toure to (controversially?) bring him down. Gerrard took the penalty kick as only he could putting Liverpool up 3-2. As Arsenal through everything they could forward, the reds caused a mistake and were able to catch Ryan Babel on the break for the 4th. For the 3rd time in 4 years. Liverpool are in the semifinals.