Three games in the space of six days against Arsenal will go along way to deciding whether the 2007/08 campaign has been a successful one for Liverpool. Out of the two domestic cups, a frustratingly inconsistent league record, but still battling on in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, Rafa Benitez’s side have something to prove. Tonight is the first of the trio of games against the Gunners at the Emirates Stadium, in the first leg of the Champions League all-English tie.
Sam Wallace of The Independent this morning discusses tactics.
As they face Arsenal tonight in the Champions League in the first of three games against the same opponents in a week, Benitez has settled upon a team and a formation. Once upon a time a defeat, like the one to United on 23 March, would have meant a complete reinvention of his team but in the following game, last Sunday against Everton, Benitez dropped only his two full-backs, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio. There are minor changes. Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Kuyt are playing regularly. Ryan Babel and Martin Skrtel are virtually assured of a first-team place. Every 4-2-3-1 formation is not identical but it is recognisable and the teamsheet is not the box of tricks it once was.
He concludes his well-written article with an analysis of how Benitez has kept himself back from club politics as the arguments over ownership continue behind the scenes. What matters tonight is what happens on the pitch.
In a club that is tearing itself apart at boardroom level, Benitez has stepped deftly into the power vacuum. Despite Liverpool’s history, Anfield revels in an outsider role, as the ones to confound other wealthier, more-fancied opposition. Benitez has played on that expertly, casting himself as both the outsider in his own club ‘“ against the American owners ‘“ and the outsider among the other big clubs that he claims have greater financial clout. Tonight his two great gambles ‘“ abandoning rotation and claiming to manage on a shoestring budget ‘“ are put to their greatest test. Against a club that lay claim to playing the best football in the division, and doing it on the cheap.
Mark Ogden of The Telegraph write his match preview as a battle between the two tacticians, Benitez and Wenger. Ahead of tonight’s European Cup clash, he says Benitez has the edge in Europe.
Only Wenger knows just how much he yearns to emulate Benitez by adding the ultimate prize of a Champions League triumph to his glittering CV. Benitez, meanwhile, can only wonder just how many more European Cups he might have added – and may yet add – to his own record of achievements had he benefited from the unswerving support and backing, both at Liverpool and his previous club, Valencia, that Wenger has come to regard as a given at Arsenal.
If Benitez has the edge in Europe, with one European Cup and a UEFA Cup to boast, then Arsene Wenger surely must have the edge domestically with several Premier League titles won at Highbury. Andy Hunter of The Guardian writes of how Benitez is looking to follow in Wenger’s footsteps to end 18 years of league championship hurt at Anfield.
The style of the opponent is not all that distinguishes Liverpool’s latest European jaunt on English soil from their six Champions League meetings with Chelsea. Whereas contempt framed Rafael BenÃtez’s view of Jose Mourinho the Spaniard lavished praise on ArsÃ¨ne Wenger yesterday, admitting the Arsenal manager had created a template Liverpool should follow to extend success beyond the Champions League.
Tonight’s match, Arsenal vs Liverpool, kicks off at 7.45pm and is live on Sky Sports.