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Crouch masterclass settles Arsenal score but is no guarantee of Dutch start

In the dressing room Rafael Benítez had stuck up the scores of Liverpool's hidings at home to Arsenal this season. It was the visitors who failed to read the signs. Arsène Wenger's team was languorous and, unpardonably, the vengeful sharpness of the Anfield side took them by surprise.

Arsenal had won 3-1 and 6-3 on the visits in FA Cup and Carling Cup. Liverpool are still 10-8 behind on aggregate but this victory underlined how much the immediate future could hold for them. A Champions League quarter-final gets under way in Holland tomorrow and Benitez's squad looks better equipped to deal with PSV Eindhoven than Arsenal were.

Peter Crouch, despite landing his first hat-trick in club football, does not count on staying in the starting line-up. He was employed purely as a substitute in the matches with Barcelona and Benítez has no fear of demoting the forward should his strategy require it. "If I talk with him he will understand," the manager claimed.

Crouch can be troublingly sweet-natured for a person who is meant to inflict harm. He does not even bridle at reports that Liverpool are prepared to sell him. "I want to remain part of the manager's plans but he keeps his cards close to his chest," said the 26-year-old. "I am as happy as I have ever been and determined to prove I am worth my place. No one is safe at a big club like this."

Arsenal, however, were in deeper peril. While two of his goals were taken on the deck, Crouch's height aggravated the panic in central defence. This was Kolo Touré's worst display for the club and William Gallas was unobtrusive until he brushed home an irrelevant goal after his fellow centre-back had helped on a corner-kick.

The team was eliminated, too, by aerial power in the Champions League, when PSV's Alex scored at a set piece. Wenger has still to come up with the correct pairing for the core of the defence and it was disingenuous of him to portray Crouch as a special case. The Arsenal manager, nonetheless, was magnanimous about the 6ft 7in attacker.

"He was superb," said Wenger. "Everything he did was intelligent. He has the size of a basketball player but the skill of a real football player. If you had put a real basketball player in, Kolo and Gallas would have had no problem."

Liverpool, with the judicious partnership of Xabi Alonso and the impressive Javier Mascherano at the heart of midfield, allowed themselves plenty of licence on the wings. With four minutes gone, a Jermaine Pennant backheel took out both Gael Clichy and Abou Diaby, releasing Alvaro Arbeloa for a low cross. Crouch, with a well-timed run, got in front of Touré to apply a right-footed finish.

Ten minutes from the interval Fabio Aurelio delivered a perfect ball from the left that beckoned Crouch. "When a cross like that comes in, your eyes light up; you can go and attack it," the scorer said of the service that preceded a firm header sent high beyond Jens Lehmann.

The hat-trick came in exquisite fashion after 81 minutes. Crouch dodged Touré by manoeuvring Pennant's cross on to his left foot with his right heel before shooting. He was a fountain of confidence and some rued the nose operation that ruled him out of England's last two fixtures. Even so, Andorra were beaten in any case and Steve McClaren would apparently not have started with him in Israel. There has generally been an ambivalence towards Crouch despite his hat-trick against Jamaica before the 2006 World Cup. It counts against him that he lacks the pace that is viewed as a necessity at the top level. All the same this rout at Anfield demonstrated his impact when others provide movement and speed around him.

Neither is Crouch a first-choice at Anfield. There have been 28 goals from him, including those in the Club World Cup, since he signed in the summer of 2005. The player protests that this unremarkable tally is a consequence of limited playing time rather than the cause of it.

"If you look at actual minutes on the pitch, I think it works out at something like a goal every hour or so. I am quite happy to have my scoring record scrutinised. It was good to get a full 90 minutes and show what I can do. When the second goal went in, it did cross my mind that I had been there before: two at Birmingham last season and another two at Watford in January, and subbed each time. I was a bit nervous it might happen again, especially with a couple of forwards on the bench."

No one intruded much on Crouch's afternoon, although Daniel Agger had notched Liverpool's third with a header from Aurelio's set piece after an hour. Emmanuel Adebayor did hit the post with two efforts for Arsenal, the second tipped there by the goalkeeper Pepe Reina, and it was steadfastness more than threat that the visitors lacked.

Wenger wants his team to set the right tone for next season and appreciated that a fourth-place finish is not inevitable on this form. It is obvious that the young line-up has been affected by the sudden manner in which the applause has fallen silent. After they were hailed for their showing in the Carling Cup Final their education proceeded painfully with elimination from the FA Cup and Champions League.

Arsenal have a fair amount still to play for but not in the way they had hoped.

Man of the match: Peter Crouch

The hat-trick displayed a full gamut of talent, including a goal with each foot as well as his head. There was even an unusual aggression when he crashed in a header from Aurelio's cross.

Best moment The confident manner in which he switched feet to avoid Touré's challenge and record his third goal of the afternoon.

How Arsenal's season unravelled

Match Facts

04' Crouch 1-0
21' Diaby
35' Crouch 2-0
45' Lehmann
50' Fabregas
54' Alonso
60' Agger 3-0
73' 3-1 Gallas
81' Crouch 4-1

Liverpool
Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard (Dirk Kuyt), Mark Gonzalez (Boudewijn Zenden), Javier Mascherano (John Arne Riise), Jermaine Pennant, Peter Crouch

Arsenal
Jens Lehmann, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Eboue (Justin Hoyte), William Gallas, Kolo Toure, Julio Cesar Baptista (Fredrik Ljungberg), Pereira Neves Denilson, Vassiriki Abou Diaby (Tomas Rosicky), Cesc Fabregas, Alex Hleb, Emmanuel Adebayor

Referee: Bennett, S

Venue: Anfield

Attendance: 43,958

Corners:
Liverpool 2
Arsenal 7

Goal Attempts:
Liverpool 12
Arsenal 11

On Target:
Liverpool 7
Arsenal 3

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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