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The Camden Cad
Aug 24, 2004
North London
Apologies, I've been rushed off my feet this week. Here's both games for you.

Is it so inconceivable that Arsenal could end this strangest of seasons as Champions of Europe? Arsene Wenger described his side as 'super-outsiders' before the first leg of their clash with Villarreal, but even after this emphatic victory in the second, the bookmakers aren't prepared to argue. Well, allow me to disagree. Tattered and vulnerable before Christmas, Arsenal are now the form team of the continent, unbeaten in the league since November. None of the other big-name combatants can boast of that. Barcelona, Chelsea and Manchester United have all had their wobbles, but Arsenal? They're just getting better and better

Villarreal simply could not cope with the Gunners here. They were ripped apart, eviscerated by some of the finest passing I've ever seen. The move of the match? How could anyone choose between Robin van Persie's immaculate caress with the outside of his foot, or the divine backheel from Cesc Fabregas that led to the opening goal? Everything was precise and perfect, lovingly-crafted like a tailor-made suit. This must be what Arsene Wenger sees in his mind's eye when he falls asleep at night.

Villarreal's defenders were savaged. Captain Gonzalo Rodriguez had what must have been one of the most difficult nights of his professional life, stumbling around the pitch trying to hold his back-line together. Diego Godin didn't fare much better alongside him. He couldn't seem to adjust to the range of passes that harassed him and was tugged backwards and forwards by the taunting runs of Arsenal's front-men.

Joan Capdevila was one of the outstanding players at Euro08. A clever and technically accomplished left-back, he caught the eye of some of Europe's biggest clubs with his displays in Vienna. Theo Walcott made him look like an S-League reject. He ran him into the ground, twisting him around so viciously that the Spaniard's socks must have been turned inside out by half-time. At one point, the impetuous Walcott nudged the ball to his left and darted round his right, meeting up with it on the other side and leaving Capdevila gawping in confusion. If he can do that to Spain's top left-back, then why should we presume that he'll struggle against the woefully out-of-form Patrice Evra?

Even the fringe players were on fire here. Kieran Gibbs, a velvet-footed left back of great promise, rampaged forward in the second half to stretch the Spanish side further. Emmanuel Eboue, who finally seems to have dropped the immature and effeminate gamesmanship that disgusted even his own fans, repeatedly bolted down the right flank like a startled colt, terrifying his opposite number. If Wenger can ever find a way to harness the energy of the young African, he'll have quite a weapon at his disposal. Eboue must have the most dramatic acceleration of any player in the league. He can go from nought to sprinty in as much time as it takes to blink.

Cynics might contend that Villarreal, stripped of Marcus Senna, were too weak to compete, but take a look at those line-ups. Arsenal had a reserve goalkeeper, left-back, right-back and centre-back. The great teams cope, and Wenger's side are coping very well indeed. Manuel Pellegrini's team were no weaker than their hosts.

Don't be deceived by the league table either. The only reason that Arsenal aren't challenging for the title is an injury crisis that robbed them of their most creative players in the formative stages of the season. They are a better side than Chelsea, they are currently in better form than Manchester United and, after the disappointment of Paris in 2006, how they would love to prove that they can be the betters of Barcelona. Don't rule it out.

ON FIRE - Well done, Wolfgang Stark. The German referee finally took action on Villarreal's imaginary card waving. If the Spaniards had kept it zipped, there's a fair chance that Mikael Silvestre could have been sent off in the second half, but Cani was so forceful in his demands for a second yellow card, that he got one for himself instead.

LOSER - As Nicklas Bendtner warmed up on the touchline, the partying Arsenal fans sang out his name, which is not a regular occurence, I assure you. "Bendtner, Bendtner, give us a wave!" they asked. Did they get one? Nope. Sulky Bendtner just smiled smugly, turned around and jogged off. A PR nightmare, that boy.

TANTRUM - Sebastian Eguren didn't foul Theo Walcott for Arsenal's penalty, but he shouted and squealed so loudly that he managed to get sent off for it. The excellent Stark kept trying to tell him to keep quiet, but after repeated warnings he was forced to give up and send him off. Why argue like that when you're already on a yellow card? Foolish.

PUNTER'S RANT - Few would have predicted such a margin of victory here, especially as Villarreal had demonstrated their ability to slice Arsenal open in the first leg. The smart money would have backed a draw, but then the smart money doesn't always win, does it?

MAN OF THE MATCH - No doubts over this one. Theo Walcott was absolutely breathtaking. He's not just a quick winger, he's a skillful one too. His passing has improved since he arrived at The Emirates and his finishing is becoming clinical. Two years ago, he'd have spooned his early chance into the stands. Here, he just lifted it gently over the goalkeeper and into the back of the net. Delightful.


Crowd - 59,233
Yellow Cards - Silvestre (Arsenal), Godin, Egueren, Cani (Villarreal)
Red Cards- Egueren (Villarreal)
Arsenal -
Lukasz Fabianski (rating 7), Cesc Fabregas 7, Kolo Toure 7, Samir Nasri 8, Robin van Persie 8 (Abou Diaby 6, 77th), Theo Walcott 9 (Denilson 6, 77th), Alexandre Song 7, Mikael Silvestre 7, Emmanuel Adebayor 7 (Nicklas Bendtner 6, 83rd), Emmanuel Eboue 7, Kieran Gibbs 8
Villarreal -
Diego Lopez 6, Gonzalo Rodriguez 5, Diego Godin 5, Joan Capdevila 4, Sebastien Eguren 4, Robert Pires 7, Cani 6 (Jordi 6, 70th), Mati Fernandez 5 (Ariel Ibagaza 6, 64th), Angel Lopez 5, Bruno 5 (Nihat 7, 64th), Giuseppe Rossi 5

Chelsea 4-4 Liverpool

Drogba, 50 Aurelio, 19
Alex, 57, Alonso, 28 (pen)
Lampard 76, 90 Lucas, 81
Kuyt, 83

What on earth just happened? Weren't these incessant Chelsea - Liverpool games supposed to be more boring than a Belgian backpacking holiday? There was a time when you'd have had to bribe me with muffins to make me watch these two stretching out another European yawnathon, but if it hadn't have been for last night's stewards ushering me out, I'd still be sat in Stamford Bridge now with my jaw hanging down on my lap.

Back in 2004, Jose Mourinho described Arsenal's 5-4 victory over Tottenham as, "a hockey score, not a football score." The Portuguese boss, who values defensive organisation above anything else, except perhaps mirrors, simply couldn't understand what had happened.

"In a three-against-three training match," he said, "if the score reaches 5-4 I send the players back to the dressing rooms as they are not defending properly. So to get a result like that in a game of 11 against 11 is disgraceful."

What would he have made of this? He'd certainly have been startled at the loss of form of Petr Cech. Not since the dark days of Dave Beasant has a goalkeeper endured the kind of public meltdown that Cech suffered here. Beasant, whose horrendous errors against Norwich in 1992 led then-manager Ian Porterfield to tell journalists that he would never play for the club again, would recognise his symptoms well. Once the most secure pair of hands in world football, Cech flapped at crosses, misjudged runs, clattered into his own defenders and generously allowed Liverpool to open the scoring when he decided to leave the vast majority of the goal free from obstructions for Fabio Aurelio. Cech is utterly bereft of confidence and Guus Hiddink must be seriously considering his place in the team for the FA Cup semi-final this weekend.

But Cech cannot be made the sole scapegoat for this fortunate escape. For all their earlier protestations, there were too many Chelsea players who appeared to believe that they were already through to the semi-finals. Alex made his first mistake after less than 100 seconds, allowing himself to be muscled off the ball by Yossi Benayoun, a man who weighs less than my hair. John Terry, sat approximately six foot in front of me at the rear of Chelsea's bench, did not enjoy his evening off. Had he been there to lift, cajole, or berate his team-mates out of their malaise, this would never have happened. His frustrations reached boiling point after Liverpool's second goal when he leant over the tunnel wall to jab his finger at the fourth official. Such was the ferocity of his rage, that it was rather difficult to tell exactly what he was saying but, if it helps, most of his words seemed to begin with 'f'.

"When you lose, always you have to be disappointed," said a glum Rafa Benitez afterwards, "but when you lose in this way, you can be proud."

Only Liverpool could have provided drama like this. Call it luck, call it bravery, call it 'the spirit of Istanbul', but there is something supernatural about this football team. Even without Steven Gerrard, there was a spirit coursing through them that lifted them again and again, even when Chelsea had hit three goals without reply and were apparently cruising. A handful of foolish away fans walked out, but the majority knew better, as I suspect the waking world does now.

Liverpool are defeated, but not daunted. They still chase the one quarry that has evaded them since 1990, and with no FA Cup and no European distractions, perhaps this will finally be their year.

SURPRISE - Is there no limit to Guus Hiddink's talents? The Dutch manager's constant rants at the fourth official were all the more impressive given that they were delivered in near-perfect Spanish. John Terry could only sit back and admire a master at work.

STUPIDEST MOVE - The unknown member of the Chelsea backroom staff who joined in with a hearty chorus of 'You're Not Singing Anymore' at 3-2, should have known better. Never, ever tempt fate, especially not against Liverpool. Silly boy.

LIONHEART - As brave as Liverpool were, praise should also be given to a Chelsea side who never let their heads drop. The difference in their first half lethargy and their second half electricity was profound and they kept pushing for goals, even when Liverpool performed the impossible with two goals in the last ten minutes.

PUNTER'S RANT - I think I can safely say that no-one saw this one coming. Another great night to be a bookie, but at least any punter with burnt fingers got to watch an astonishing match as compensation for their losses.

MAN OF THE MATCH - Let's leave aside his injury feigning for a moment, a sin that practically turned Sammy Lee feral on the Liverpool bench, and concentrate on his performance. He was expansive, powerful, and devastating, never afraid to run with the ball, always stretching the Liverpool defence. Back to his best.


Crowd - 38,286
Yellow Cards - Ivanovic, Carvalho, Cole (Chelsea), Benayoun, Arbeloa (Liverpool)
Red Cards - None
Chelsea -
Petr Cech (rating) 3, Branislav Ivanovic 5, Ashley Cole 5, Michael Essien 6, Ricardo Carvalho 6, Frank Lampard 7, Didider Drogba, 8 (Franco di Santo 6, 90th), Michael Ballack 7, Florent Malouda 6, Salomon Kalou 5 (Nicolas Anelka 7, 36th), Alex 6
Liverpool -
Pepe Reina 5, Fernando Torres 6 (David N'Gog 6, 80), Fabio Aurelio 6, Xabi Alonso 6, Yossi Benayoun 7, Alvara Arbeloa 6 (Ryan Babel 6, 85th), Dirk Kuyt 7, Javier Mascherano 7 (Albert Reira 7, 69th), Lucas 7, Jamie Carragher 7, Martin Skrtel 7