Gunners will win long war

NOT everyone on Merseyside is celebrating Tuesday night’s extraordinary victory over Arsenal.

I didn’t get the name of the taxi driver who ferried me to John Lennon Airport yesterday but “Livid Of Liverpool” will probably do. “Jammy” and “dodgy” were the most reader-friendly terms he employed to sum up the win at Anfield. And, anyway, he insisted, they only won it in the end because of a generous referee. I mean, he continued, Steven Gerrard had done nothing until he converted from the spot. Fernando Torres, his great strike aside, had done little more. For long periods of the game, Arsenal had basically played them off the park.

“I really hope Man United do them in the final,” he concluded, as a happy picture suddenly formed in his mind. “And Wayne Rooney scores the winner.”

Need I explain that my cabbie was as Blue as his language? Still, strip away the accent and the expletives, and you might have been listening to the rather better known “Disgusted Of North London”.

Goals not only change games, they can also radically alter opinions. Before kick off on Tuesday, I bumped into Jim Beglin outside the ground. The Liverpool and Ireland old boy figured the tie was too close to call but noted that what we would be saying afterwards might be very different to what we were saying then. “When Arsenal went to the San Siro, everyone described Milan as an ‘experienced’ side,” he observed. “But after Arsenal won, Milan were suddenly an ‘ageing’ team.”

So we are where we are today: Liverpool continue their march towards Moscow as Arsenal attempt to lift themselves for a final, and probably doomed, bid for the domestic crown.

But, after this incredible Champions’ League quarter-final, the temptation to play the what if game is overwhelming. What if both big penalty shouts had either been given or denied over the two legs? What if Adebayor hadn’t blown his chance in front of goal on Tuesday? What if the inspirational Flamini hadn’t been forced out of the fray? What if Senderos hadn’t had such a bad night at the office?

The honest answer to all of them is that, today, the media would be full of laudatory comment about Wenger’s wonderful team, with lots of gushing stuff about how magnificently they have come of age, and copious references to Maradona, Messi and Giggs as Theo Walcott’s electrifying run to set up their second goal is rewarded with a permanent loop on Sky.

And, in truth, despite the crushing blow of losing from a position of strength on Tuesday, much of that actually still holds true.

For the first 30 minutes at Anfield, Wenger’s wonders were sublime, playing a brand of one-touch passing football that, at times, really was like watching Brazil. And, just like watching Brazil, they were always much more comfortable attacking the opposition than defending against them. So Senderos can be cited for his uncertainty on the night and Adebayor, despite getting on the scoresheet, has clearly lost potency as the season nears its end. Yet Arsenal are entitled to feel that, ultimately, they were undone by events, dear boy, as much as by any deep flaws in their own design.

And, as we know, events do tend to happen at the famous ground on Merseyside. “This is Anfield,” says the famous sign which greets players as they walk down the tunnel. They should stick another one up outside the ground: “Abandon logic all ye who enter here.”

With the Kop an almost physical force in proceedings, Liverpool somehow continue to come through gloriously unscathed on these pulsating European nights. You have to admire the team’s character and the touch of class that someone like Torres brings to the party. And, of course, they never seem to know when they’re beaten, even if no European adventure is complete for Liverpool without their somehow engineering a detour which takes them up Mont Blanc. But, not for the first time, you also have to ask: for how long more can they keep playing their get out of jail card in the Champions’ League? You could forgive Chelsea if, deep in their souls, they think they already know the answer.

With Arsenal needing just the one, Tuesday’s game was still balanced on a knife-edge, right up until Ryan Babel did his Geoff Hurst bit and then, finally, we knew for sure it was all over. Liverpool continue to make a virtue of the incomparable drama of cup football, but it would be foolish to damn Arsenal for falling victim to that uniquely Scouse voodoo.

They may have lost the battle but in the war — the long war — the Gunners will surely prevail. They could certainly do with a bit more defensive steel and added strength in depth but, battle-hardened by this season’s knocks, they already look well-placed to make an even more formidable challenge for top honours next term.

The same can hardly be said of a Liverpool side which continues to blow hot and cold and which, even with more European conquests under its belt, seems no closer now to that long-awaited domestic title than it did at the start of the season.

Not that the Red faithful will be worrying too much with Moscow still looming on the horizon. Just the thought of it was enough to drive my deeply blue cabbie round the bend.

“Can you imagine it?” he spluttered. “Man U and that lot, in Moscow. English football will be thrown out of Europe for years!”

And even then, he forgot to add, Liverpool would probably still find a way to win the Champions’ League.

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