Crouch back in the wings after shining in Part Two
Arsenal 1 Liverpool 1
The filling in the sandwich between two Champions League encounters provided plenty of food for thought: the confirmation that Arsenal's league title challenge was over, that Liverpool are strangely vulnerable to set-pieces - and that tomorrow's quarter-final second-leg may just go down to the wire with penalties a realistic possibility.
And then there was the performance of Peter Crouch. This may not have been a big match for some but for the striker, who acknowledged that he is unlikely to start at Anfield tomorrow, it was the opportunity he craved. He played like a man desperate to make the most of it and, with his goal and man-of-the-match performance, he got his reward.
"My dad said to me 'You've got a big game in you before the end of the season', and hopefully that was one today, and hopefully there's more," Crouch said afterwards. And while Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, was talking of his desire for Crouch, who has one year left on his contract, to sign the deal he has been offered by a club which can "win trophies", the 27-year-old was speaking candidly about his future. And how it probably lies elsewhere.
"I'd love to stay, it's a fantastic club," Crouch, who joined for £7m in 2005, said before adding a qualification. "But I've got to be realistic, and if I want to have any aspirations of playing for England, or furthering my career, then I have to be playing. And that doesn't seem to be the case at the moment."
It was unfortunate for him that Fabio Capello, who had been at the Emirates in midweek for the first leg, wasn't here for this match. The England manager was in Spain while the general manager, Franco Baldini, was at Wembley to watch the FA Cup semi-final. No matter. Both, who rate Crouch's chances of remaining within the squad highly, will watch the tape with interest and hear the feedback from onlooker Ray Clemence as well.
It will show them that, on his first league start since 16 February, Crouch led the line cleverly even if, at times, he sorely lacked support while, for Arsenal, Theo Walcott again failed to impose himself. Both sides deployed unfamiliar formations and, for Liverpool, who made eight changes to Arsenal's five, there was also an unfamiliar face as 20-year-old Damien Plessis, a French midfielder from Lyons, made his debut. He played well – although he has a tendency to leave his foot high in the tackle.
But that wasn't why Arsène Wenger was raging on the touchline towards the end. Once again his team drew and while, six short weeks ago, they were five points clear in the League they have now taken only eight points from a possible 21. And then, just as on Wednesday night, there was a sense of injustice at a "blatant penalty", when Lucas tugged at Cesc Fabregas, being denied.
"In my brain it's not over because mathematically it's never over," Wenger said. His heart may be telling him otherwise this morning but his main concern will be, he said, to "recover" the players for tomorrow. "Recover physically and mentally because the players gave everything," Wenger said. But where did it all go wrong, Arsène? "I don't know," he replied, clearly bridling, "at the moment that is not my worry, at the moment my worry is to prepare for Tuesday night. I think we have enough resources to qualify."
Arsenal have to score. For Liverpool a goalless result would be good enough. "It is very difficult to play for a 0-0 draw," said Benitez. "I don't know how to do it." It would also, he said, be foolish to under-estimate an Arsenal side who are, nevertheless, close to running on empty. "Maybe the only option for them is the Champions League," he said, "which means they will be more dangerous for us."
The competition is the only option for Liverpool, also, but they pushed ahead in this game. After Crouch had forced a fine save from Manuel Almunia, after a neat turn and shot from fully 30 yards, he smartly played in John Arne Riise who blazed over. Crouch's goal came after he won a long punt forward, found Yossi Benayoun and was there to collect the midfielder's hook forward to cut inside William Gallas and find the net.
Arsenal hit back when Nicklas Bendtner, who had earlier side-footed woefully at Pepe Reina, rose high to meet a Fabregas' free-kick. Once again Liverpool were undone from a set-piece – once again Arsenal, for all their free-flowing football, were reliant upon one. Chances were missed by both sides – most notably when Andrei Voronin hoofed over Crouch's cut-back but a draw was just. Something has to give tomorrow. Small margins, Benitez said, will probably decide it. It will be tight.
Goals: Crouch (42) 0-1; Bendtner (54) 1-1.
Arsenal (4-1-4-1): Almunia; Hoyte (Adebayor, 58), Touré, Gallas, Traoré (Clichy, 72); Gilberto; Eboué, Fabregas, Flamini (Hleb, 81), Walcott; Bendtner. Substitutes not used: Lehmann (gk), Song.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Skrtel, Arbeloa; Plessis; Pennant (Gerrard, 66), Lucas, Benayoun (Voronin, 75), Riise; Crouch (Torres, 81). Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Hyypia.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Arsenal Eboué; Liverpool Riise.
Man of the match: Crouch.