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09 Apr 2008 07:40
Rafael Benitez has identified his players’ self-belief and the passion of the Anfield faithful as the keys that opened the door for Liverpool to progress to their third Champions League semifinal with Chelsea in four seasons.
The Liverpool boss watched his side come from behind to seal a memorable 4-2 victory over Arsenal courtesy of an 85th-minute penalty from Steven Gerrard and an injury-time strike from substitute Ryan Babel.
But it was a much closer-run thing than the final scoreline suggests, with Arsenal having comfortably bossed the game early on and then come agonisingly close to progressing on the away-goals rule after Emmanuel Adebayor’s 84th-minute strike levelled the match at 2-2 on the night and 3-3 on aggregate.
Benitez admitted his heart had been in his mouth after Arsenal sub Theo Walcott robbed Gerrard on the edge of his own area and ran the length of the pitch to set up Adebayor for the equaliser.
“I was really disappointed when they equalised, especially with the way they scored,” Benitez said.
“But after I was very, very happy with the reaction of my players and the character they showed. I don’t think you can say it was because we have more European experience—Arsenal have many players who were in the final two years ago.
It was the self-belief of my players that made the difference.
“And the crowd was amazing.
Benitez’s late introduction of Babel for a tiring Fernando Torres proved an inspired move as it was the Dutch winger who drew Kolo Toure into a clumsy challenge that resulted in the decisive penalty that Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger derided as a “dodgy decision”.
Television replays suggested Toure had illegally unbalanced Babel, but Wenger was adamant that his side had been treated as unfairly on Tuesday as they had been in being denied a penalty for Dirk Kuyt’s foul on Alexander Hleb in the first leg.
“Over the two games it is very difficult to swallow,” Wenger complained. “It is a double disappointment because all the big decisions went against us and with minutes to go we were qualified against a Liverpool side who had many less chances than us over the two legs.
“In football sometimes you have to swallow what is not swallowable. For me it was not a penalty and last week it was.”
Wenger admitted, however, that his side had contributed to their own downfall with the lapses in concentration that contributed to Liverpool’s first two goals, a first-half header from an unmarked Sami Hyypia and a 69th-minute shot from Torres after he was allowed to turn in the box.
Those strikes nullified the advantage that Abou Diaby’s 13th-minute shot had given Arsenal and Wenger acknowledged: “We were too naive and we lack a bit of maturity defensively. We made big mistakes, conceding a goal from a corner and giving Torres too much space on their second. But I believe this team has plenty of talent and potential. It does not lack mental strength.”
Arsenal are now facing a third consecutive season without any silverware and Wenger acknowledged he will struggle to rouse his dejected troops for a meeting with Manchester United on Sunday that amounts to a last chance to get back into the Premier League title battle.
“We will try to finish the season strongly, but we have a feeling of disappointment and injustice that makes it doubly difficult,” the Frenchman added. “The whole dressing room is completely down. If you lose against a team that you feel is better than you, then, OK. But that is not the impression we have over the two games.”
Benitez, meanwhile, can start plotting another win over Chelsea, although unlike their past two European meetings it will be the Londoners who have home advantage in the second leg this time around.
“First we will enjoy this win and afterwards we will talk about Chelsea,” Benitez said. “It will be a tough, tough tie because they are a very good side.”—Sapa-AFP
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