Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Match Pricks Derby: Odds and ends

Before we set off on an outstanding Tuesday with Liverpool and Arsenal, a few words about some things tangentially associated with this match. One of them has received loads of attention, and the other could be the key to the match – and no one is really thinking about it.

First, the bluster: Fergie and Allardyce ganging up to hurl the absurd allegation that Rafa made an arm gesture after Liverpool scored their second against Blackburn 10 days ago that was a targeted insult at the Blackburn manager. You can't find anyone with half a working brain anywhere willing to give any credence to this claim. Of course it's idiotic. Of course Jintao and Big Sam Jiabao can barely finish reading their script at these press conferences without moving on and changing the subject. But the point is not for these claims to be believed. The point is for these claims to be talked about. And now, for five days running, Liverpool's management has had every journalist hither and yon speeding up and asking for comments about Fergie's latest accusations.

Job done then, isn't it? The fact is that today's match represents Liverpool's stiffest remaining challenge in the League. That much is apparent to everyone – and has been so since March 14. Or what I like to refer to as 4-1 Day. Liverpool comes into this match with a full week of rest and – though it's dangerous to trade on matters beyond football like this – clearly of a galvanized spirit and sense of purpose after the Hillsborough memorial services last Wednesday. The team is unified, the city is behind it. And Arsenal is juggling numerous injuries to important first-team players as they come to Anfield, just three days after a dispiriting loss in the FA Cup semifinal. On the surface, Liverpool appears to have an edge in the match.

But just because United isn't playing doesn't mean Fergie can't try to have an effect on the outcome. His comments are meant to be a distraction. They are meant to unsettle the weak-minded. He purposely attacked the integrity of Rafa Benitez, called into question his manhood, really, as a way of trying to turn Liverpool's eyes away from the target. Anything to interrupt Rafa's preparations with the team couldn't hurt, right?

Wrong. Liverpool, unless I'm tremendously mistaken, are not Keegan's Newcastle. Liverpool is too strong-willed for such mind games now. They've won without Torres. They've won without Gerrard. They've won without both Gerrad and Torres, and they've scored 9 goals this term in stoppage time. This is not a team gliding through the year with its head in the clouds. We all saw what happened last Tuesday at Stamford Bridge, the relentless refusal to die, against the odds. Should Liverpool lose to Arsenal today, it will happen because Wenger's side outplayed them. That's certainly possible. Arsenal are still tremendous with Cesc, Arshavin and Eduardo out there, no matter who's hurt. But Arsenal won't win because Liverpool fell asleep or didn't prepare.

One way Liverpool could lose today, however, is through Lucas. With Gerrard hurt, I'm certain Rafa will start Lucas in an advanced midfield position. He might even show up in the hole or "free" role like a healthy Gerrard does. Rafa singled out one player by name in his comments immediately following the second leg at Chelsea. That was Lucas. He is a Rafa favorite, no matter how many supporters desperately wished otherwise. I would prefer Benayoun get the opportunity, as I think a more creative mind could unsettle an Arsenal back four down to its backup players. But my guess is we'll see Lucas, at least for the first hour.

If Liverpool keep this dream of a comeback going in pursuit of the title, Lucas will have to be excellent today. Fergie, much to his dismay, I'm sure, will only be able to watch.

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