More than just talking points
Whatever it was that last night's fixture lacked, drama and controversy were not on the list. Instead of a regular rundown of the game's main events, here are a few intriguing talking points that I personally will keep thinking about until the kickoff of Act II of the Arsenal - Liverpool Trilogy at the Emirates on Saturday.
Absolutely ludicrous refereeing
Whether Kuyt had met the game's Dutch referee before or not, the entire officials' team must rank as one of the most incompetent that I have ever seen in a game of such importance. Aside from the botched penalty call (for which the referee was perfectly placed, yet he refused to make the obvious call) there were two little-publicized - but awfully wrong nevertheless - offside calls (one for Flamini's pass to van Persie in the first half, the second one for Bendtner's positioning as he was saving Fabregas's shot from near the goal line) that would have cost Arsenal two goals. In the first instance, van Persie made a perfect run between Liverpool's central defenders and sent his first-touch shot over the crossbar - had he scored, he would have been flagged for offside, even though replays show that van Persie started his run from a clearly onside position. Same for Bendtner - if he had somehow managed to recover and send the ball in the net after clumsily deflecting Fabregas's shot on goal, he would have been flagged for offside, even though the replays show Hyypia clearly behind him on the goal line.
Saturday's game looming large
It's an odd statement, I know, but the game on Saturday may mean even more than the one we just witnessed. We have everything (and then some) to play for. A win would bring us three points from first place and place us ahead of Chelsea, who, playing at Man City, are hopefully due to drop the points they should have (and almost did) last week. Getting the three points would also provide a tremendous confidence boost for the return leg; scoring two or more goals will reinforce the idea that we absolutely can score at Anfield as well.
To rest or not to rest
We are in no position to rest players (although you feel that the "minor injuries" reported for van Persie and Adebayor may be just that and that Walcott will be handed a start alongside Bendtner upfront) Certainly Fabregas, Flamini and Hleb could use a day off as well, but with all that's hanging on this game (and having Diaby suspended) it will not even be a possibility. Resting players is an option, however, for Benitez. Will he do it and if so, how far will he go in risking the potential confidence shift ahead of the return leg of the Champions League quarterfinal?
Bendtner and Walcott - not fitting in
Two quick notes about the young Dane and the English prodigy, neither of whom seem very comfortable on the pitch - for very different reasons. Bendtner, who can not stop scoring when wearing a Denmark shirt, looks as if playing under tremendous pressure and with great fear - of a missed pass, of any wrong decision - that he can not seem able to shake off. (his comical-if-he-wasn't-on-your-team gaffe was not physical clumsiness, but rather the mental lapse of a player under heavy mental pressure) As for young Theo, his teammates seem to ignore his presence on the pitch at crunch time - which caused him visible frustration during the game. And this was not the first time this happened - he received virtually no passes during his almost 15 minutes of play at the end of the Chelsea game. More homework for Arsene...
As for the brief ratings...
Almunia - 7. Average performance, highlighted however by the save at the beginning of the second half, which could have sealed the tie for good.
Toure - 7. A bit shaky, but dangerous when going forward. Gerrard blasted past him too easily when he set up Liverpool's goal.
Gallas - 8. Commanding performance, rendered Torres inexistent. Let's hope the same holds true on Saturday and next Tuesday.
Senderos - 6. A bit more nervous than usual.
Clichy - 7. Cemented his status of one of the team's MVP's of the season with another fine performance. Matched the energy of wild-man-of-the-match Kuyt step for step. Threatening and pacy when going forward.
Eboue - 4. Sloppy and uninspired. Tired of watching him not contribute anything on the pitch. Anything.
Hleb - 6. On and off throughout the game, he looks as if he feels the grunt of the long season more than most. The burst into the box that resulted in the missed call of the match was pure genius.
Fabregas - 6. Under heavy pressure from Mascherano and Alonso, he had a very hard time finding either space or time. Rather ineffective.
Flamini - 6. High workrate, he managed to keep Gerrard under control for most of the game - except for that fateful run that set up Liverpool's goal.
(Bendtner - 5) See above
Adebayor - 6. On one hand, he is not getting great service from his midfield. On the other hand, his effort rate is not what is used to be.
van Persie - 6. Still on the (pretty long, apparently) road to form recovery. He is getting (some) opportunities, he must begin converting. Anfield would be the best place to do just that.
(Walcott - 6) Looked very dangerous on the left wing in the first part of the second half. He has to find a way to insert himself into more combination play and force others to play the ball to him. (see above)