Gerrard breaks Arsenal hearts

There was so much to revel in over the course of the match between Arsenal and Liverpool that it must rank high in the entire history of the tournament, writes Kevin McCarra.

Liverpool advance yet again to a Champions League semifinal with Chelsea, but the future will have to wait. This match leaves everyone who gawped at the wonder of it in the grip of their memories. Recriminations, too, ought to be put on hold although Arsenal, easing ahead on the away goals rule after tying the score here at 2-2 in the 84th minute, will be aghast over a loss inflicted primarily by Steven Gerrard’s penalty moments later.

Only those with a partisan interest can dwell on that when there was so much to revel in over the course of a contest that must rank high in the entire history of this tournament. Rafael Benitez’s team came from behind to go ahead through an exquisite Fernando Torres goal that was made to seem drab by the leveller from Arsenal. Liverpool, the masters of protecting a lead, were rendered flimsy by the 19-year-old Theo Walcott.

With five minutes remaining he covered some 80 yards at pace to escape Xabi Alonso, Fabio Aurelio, Javier Mascherano and Sami Hyypia before picking out Emmanuel Adebayor for a simple finish. It looked then as if the Togo striker had been redeemed after a damnable miss from Alexander Hleb’s service a little earlier.

His defence, however, could not guide Arsenal safely to full-time. Kolo Toure, not a right-back by preference, was caught on the wrong side of Ryan Babel and needlessly fouled the substitute from behind at the corner of the penalty area packed with team-mates. Gerrard took full advantage from the spot.

It was a colourful irrelevance when Babel broke free on Dirk Kuyt’s pass to notch a fourth in stoppage time. There has to be sympathy for Arsenal, who resented the award of the penalty here when they had been refused a more blatant one in the first leg. Above all, it is to be regretted that the competition now has to do without the sort of gorgeous football with which they endowed the first half.

In that spell, the Liverpool holding players Mascherano and Alonso, were redundant because the speed and accuracy with which the ball was moved made interceptions a pipedream. Liverpool needed merely a goalless draw to progress, but such a result was utterly unattainable.

By their own ethereal standards, Arsenal had beefed up for this match by including Abou Diaby, nominally on the left of midfield. The Frenchman was on the other flank when, after 13 minutes, he scored an opener that felt overdue. Liverpool efforts to clear ended with Hleb in possession and he slid a pass through to Diaby. The angle was tight but his shot reached the net at the near post after ricocheting off the knee of Jose Reina.

Benitez had anticipated that Arsenal would score, but the free-spirited line-up he had selected in anticipation of that did not prove its worth for a while. Torres and Peter Crouch were partners rather than alternatives in attack and the arch-tactician appeared for a while to have miscalculated.

Liverpool dragged themselves level through a set-piece. With half-an-hour gone, an Aurelio cross deflected from Toure and was turned behind by Manuel Almunia. Gerrard’s corner was deep and Hyypia foxed his unhappy marker Phlippe Senderos by moving first behind him and then in front of the Swiss to score with a measured header from about 10 yards that went over Cesc Fabregas and flew home after bouncing off the inside of the post.

Relief at an equaliser galvanised Liverpool. There was substantial benefit too in the injury that ended Mathieu Flamini’s night, with the less vibrant, if more experienced, Gilberto Silva taking over in the 42nd minute. The balance of power was to sway in this gripping occasion.

It looks as if Anfield cannot contain both of Liverpool’s duelling owners at the same time and, with Tom Hicks attending the first home game of the new baseball season for his Texas Rangers franchise it was George Gillett’s glorious luck to be here. Arsenal adventurousness, too, ultimately had to be tempered by caution when the uneasy Senderos had to be protected. It was as if Liverpool had inherited the energy that had been the sole property of the visitors. Arsenal, leading the Premier League for so long with a small squad, had taxed themselves more than Benitez’s players in this campaign and their endeavour was that of men resolved to come up with one last and great effort.

It called for merciless precision to give one team an advantage. Torres excels at that and when Crouch nodded on a long ball from Reina after 72 minutes, the striker gathered, turned inside Senderos and smashed a shot across Almunia and high into the top corner. It is the measure of this game that such a strike could not dominate the evening.

Liverpool so often come through to win at this remarkable ground in the Champions League. Unlike the encounters of 2005 and 2007, this year’s semifinal will be settled by a return leg at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea were due a change of venue and will be all the more relieved after studying this uncanny struggle.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008