The way I see it - Liverpool v Arsenal

Last updated : 26 October 2007 By Jason Hogan
I will never tire of seeing Arsenal make little pieces of history. Having already set the record for the most successive clean sheets en route to the 2006 Champions League final the season before last and gained the distinction this season of being the first English club to beat Steaua in their own back yard in European competition, we have now equalled the biggest winning margin ever in a Champions League game.

Yet, whilst Tuesday night was one of genuine distinction for the whole team, I must give a shout out in particular to Messrs Eboue and Hleb in particular. It really was no exaggeration to say that Eboue had a complete mare on Saturday against Bolton whilst Hleb's performance in the opening 45 minutes on Saturday was patchy at best.

Whether Arsene had a word with those two in the build up to Tuesday's game I don't know but both of them were men on a mission against Slavia. Hleb was particularly outstanding I have to say. Like Saturday, he started on the left hand side of midfield but there seemed to be a pace and purpose to almost everything he did in the game that wasn't quite there on Saturday and he tormented the Czechs as much as anyone. The goal he got (the fourth out of the seven) was no more than he deserved.

The headlines however belonged to a guy who goes by the name of Theo Walcott. It's amazing to think that the boy has already been at The Arsenal for the best part of two years. This was however his graduation night.

Two brilliantly composed strikes and an assist in a wonderfully engineered second goal for Cesc on the night were his reward on a night when the young man displayed the kind of precocious talent that prompted Arsene to beat off all comers to sign him in the first place. And he would have been taking the match ball home with him as a souvenir but for a save from the Czech goalie that was out of this world.

It was a great night for the young man, a special one. And in dedicating his first goal to a young departed friend it told you that this boy is not the typical footballer who thinks the world should revolve around him but one that can find time for perspective even in the midst of celebrating a fine personal moment.

Still, I stand by what I said after Theo's match winning cameo against Bolton and it is that he needs to still be brought along gradually, develop fully at his own pace and not thrust too far into the spotlight too quickly. The boy has proved that he got something about him alright but I think it's important that Arsenal fans everywhere leave it at that when assessing him right now.

Tuesday's win now means we only need a point in order to be guaranteed a place in the last 16 of the Champions League. I think, strike that, I know that the return game in Prague will be an altogether different proposition for us. The Slavia faithful strike me as a bunch of fans that are both very passionate and very loyal.

The atmosphere out there will electric and what happened at The Grove will not matter a jot to their fans on November 7th. I said we will have done well to wrap up qualification with two games to spare and I meant it. The job is still far from done as far as I am concerned.

It's back to the Premiership for us of course this weekend and on Sunday the Gunners are off to Anfield where they will face Liverpool.

Whilst Arsenal are very much in control of their own destiny in their Champions League, the same cannot be said of Liverpool. Defeat in Istanbul on Wednesday night left them rock bottom of their group and needing to win all of their remaining three fixtures to stand any chance of qualifying for the last 16.

The defeat against Besiktas also served to highlight the indifferent manner in which Liverpool are performing. They may remain unbeaten in the Premiership but if you looked at their last three league fixtures, they enjoyed some hefty slices of luck against Wigan and Everton in beating them whilst it took a Fernando Torres header right at the death to salvage a point against Spurs.

The suggestion, certainly on Wednesday night, was that Liverpool missed the likes of Agger, Alonso and of course Torres. Now I can understand the argument over Torres but I'm not having it about the other two. Hyypia may not be as young as he once was but there are not many more experienced defenders than him anywhere in the Champions League. He, perhaps more than anybody else on Liverpool's books should be aware of what European football is all about.

As for Alonso well, I'm a fan of his but in his absence Liverpool were still able to call on the likes of Mascherano and Gerrard in central midfield - not a bad duo by any standards.

For me, there is no doubt that Benitez's rotation policy is hindering Liverpool quite a bit. But I also think the problems run a little deeper than that for Liverpool. The whole balance of the sides Benitez puts together sometimes does look right either.

On Wednesday, Benitez used Babel and Pennant as wingers but left his one out and out target man, Peter Crouch, on the bench. He did sling Crouch on after about 80 minutes as a last resort but the damage had already been done by then.

Now, if you talk to most Liverpool fans they will say that it's the Premier League that counts this year. I even saw one Liverpool fan that had travelled to Istanbul claiming on Sky Sports News that progression in the Champions League didn't matter this year because of it.

I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing. Its one thing to have a carefree attitude to the Carling Cup but for him to be so flippant about the biggest club cup competition in the world and a competition that Liverpool have a rich heritage in, was staggering.

It seems to me that there has been a culture developing generally in and around Liverpool where it appears as though they are targeting one maybe two things every season over and above something else and by doing so, they are picking and choosing when they perform.

For example, there was a perception at one stage last season that Liverpool were putting all their eggs in one basket. Having effectively put themselves out of the running for the title by New Year, the perception was that Benitez and Liverpool switched their emphasis to the Champions League.

This perception all stemmed from the reaction of Benitez when he claimed, after Arsenal played them and beat them back in January in both the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, that he didn't come to Liverpool to win either of those competitions. It was a philosophy that a lot Liverpool fans bought hook, line and sinker. And whenever the issue of those cup defeats came up later on in the season, they all claimed to a man that Liverpool were simply not up for either of those cup games and neither of those victories really meant anything.

Well, I suppose I can understand the defeat in the Carling Cup tie, embarrassing as it was for them, being considered as ultimately being no dead loss to Liverpool. But there were no excuses for what happened to them in the FA Cup tie.

Liverpool went into that FA Cup tie as FA Cup holders lest we forget. For Liverpool fans to seriously suggest after the event that their team threw that tie, a tie which was played in their own back yard in front of a live nationwide TV for the whole nation to see, was again staggering.

Was it some sort or strange bravado on the part of Liverpool fans? All I know is that I would have been far from pleased, regardless of the opposition, if the Arsenal fell at the first hurdle in defence of the FA Cup despite playing at home. And I certainly wouldn't be going around suggesting that we threw the tie either because there were bigger fish to fry.

Of course, Liverpool did go on to make their second Champions League final in three seasons and in the eyes of both Benitez and large sections of Liverpool fans, their perceived indifference towards the domestic cup competitions was about to be vindicated.

But, in losing to Milan in that final, vindication never came and Benitez and Liverpool paid the ultimate price for believing that they could they could pick where and when they choose to perform over the course of the season and still be successful.

If I know one thing, it is that you cannot switch the intensity on and off like a tap particularly if you are serious about winning a Premier League title. Now I will go on record right here by saying I still don't know whether Arsenal will win the league or not.

But here's one thing I am clear on. Liverpool may have the ability on paper to win the league but in reality they have no chance of achieving that unless they get rid of this culture of rotation, tinkering and the overall sense that they can pick and choose what competitions they want to deliver a performance in and the ones that they don't.

Having said that, I expect Liverpool to raise their game on Sunday. Why? Because they simply do not have a choice. Even before last season's Champions League final, Benitez was publicly challenging the new American owners to show him the colour of their money.

In turn, the Americans met the challenge laid down by Benitez gave him considerable funds he required and in doing so, they put the ball firmly back in Benitez's court to deliver this season and deliver big style.

So, in my mind there is no question that all the pressure is on Liverpool here. In the summer, they were the ones who were considered as guarantees not only to finish in the top four but also to be the one team that would lay down a genuine title challenge to ManUre and the PRF.

Conversely, we Gooners all know that Arsenal didn't fit into the same category in the summer and despite the start we have made to this season, we go into this game essentially billed as a bunch of upstarts who happen to be in a false position courtesy of a benevolent fixture list.

The press and the media will put this game down as a daunting, defining fixture for Arsenal but I can tell you that this is perhaps the one away fixture I look forward to every season. In fact, I can honestly say with sincerity that I view as just about the only league fixture in which Arsenal have the opportunity to make a slice of history for themselves every time they go there.

Does Sunday's game offer up Arsenal's biggest test so far? Yes, it does. Does that mean we have to go into it with a sense of trepidation? Hell no! The Arsenal have absolutely nothing to lose.

The worst case scenario for Arsenal after Sunday's game is that they will be one point off the top of the table with a game in hand going into November but if someone offered me that scenario at the start of the season, I would have snapped their hands off.

What's more, even if Liverpool do raise their game as I expect on Sunday, the only thing Arsenal have to fear is that they sell themselves short on the afternoon. Regardless of what any protesting Liverpool fan may say, we know, psychologically, that we can beat them up there and deep down, they know it too.

We have spent the whole season sending people homeward to think again so far. It would mean an awful lot to me if we could do it again on Sunday.