Arsène Wenger was highly agitated but there was no way to wire up the Arsenal side to this touchline energy source. His team dragged its way back for a deserved draw thanks more to ingrained professionalism than zest. With fluidity lost, they have been dependent on a new expertise at set pieces, the source of six of their last seven goals, including a penalty. The club looks under greater strain than Liverpool before tomorrow's return leg of the Champions League tie at Anfield, even though that is illogical.
It is Liverpool, after all, who are so far adrift that their attempt to win the Premier League would have become an arithmetical impossibility with five matches left if Manchester United had beaten Middlesbrough yesterday. Unlike Rafael Benítez, however, Wenger has not won silverware since the FA Cup three years ago.
He merely went through the motions of claiming the bid for the league title is still alive. The emphasis now can purely be on knocking Liverpool out of Europe. Though Benítez's team have the advantage of their away goal in the 1-1 draw, Arsenal should hardly despair of replying in kind. "I don't think we do too many nil-nils," said the striker Nicklas Bendtner drily.
The doubts lie with the capacity of a small group to get over their own mental fatigue. Benítez, by comparison, could keep Fernando Torres on the bench for most of the day, introducing him for nine minutes only after Peter Crouch had given an excellent display in his place.
Crouch had not started a game since Barnsley knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup. The energy he had conserved was expended with particular glee in the first half. John Arne Riise should have scored from the Englishman's subtle pass instead of clubbing a shot over the bar. Crouch demonstrated how to finish. In the 42nd minute he took a clever return from Yossi Benayoun and dodged William Gallas to guide a bouncing ball low into the net.
The satisfaction did not make Crouch complacent and he was on the verge of giggling when asked if he expected to start tomorrow. A 4-2-3-1 formation is anticipated, with Torres as the lone striker. Crouch has no complaints but also has no reason to hurry into signing a new contract before the summer. It is then that he will weigh the benefits of being at a Champions League club against the risk of frittering away his career as a substitute.
The option of calling upon Crouch is an advantage to Benítez and there is some debate as to whether the ascetic Arsenal manager shuns luxuries of that sort. Wenger could not deny that Arsenal are on the way to being affluent. "Yes, we have a rich budget and [we will have] a big potential when the stadium's paid," he said. There is an implication that the Frenchman labours under temporary constraints.
At most clubs it could be accepted automatically that a manager was being refused funds. Where Wenger is concerned, though, the reluctance to spend may be purely his own and it is highly unlikely the profit he recorded in last summer's transfer market was by order of the board. Wenger loves to fashion players rather than move for ready-made stars.
Any relaxation of that stance will be made with regret and his preferred method is development. The scorer of Saturday's equaliser was taken as an example. "Bendtner," he said, "[has] already made progress from how he was at the start of the season. Next year you can consider him a real striker."
As was the case at Emmanuel Adebayor's goal last Wednesday, Liverpool's problems with zonal marking were highlighted when an unhindered Bendtner headed in a free-kick from Cesc Fábregas after 54 minutes. Few team-mates ran to celebrate with the 20-year-old, who was involved in a clash with Adebayor in the Carling Cup semi-final. Bendtner may have to keep on scoring if his appeal is to become irresistible.
Arsenal could have gone on to victory had they been awarded a penalty but for the second time in four days an official missed a tug of the arm by a Liverpool player, with Phil Dowd oblivious to Lucas's pull on Fábregas. The outcome, nonetheless, was just. But for the wastefulness of the substitute Andriy Voronin, whether in passing or shooting, the visitors would have had a winner.
Liverpool left the Emirates in good spirits. An outstanding debut by the 20-year-old holding midfielder Damien Plessis was encouraging for the long term. Tomorrow, though, is the sole piece of the future under immediate contemplation. After three 1-1 draws between the clubs this season, premonitions of an agonising shoot-out will be vivid for Wenger and Benítez.
Man of the match: Peter Crouch
For a man who had not started a match since February 16 he was remarkably sharp
Best moment: The pass he piloted through after 16 minutes for the midfielder John Arne Riise, who ought to have scored
42' 0-1 Crouch
54' Bendtner 1-1
Manuel Almunia, Emmanuel Eboue, William Gallas, Justin Hoyte (Emmanuel Adebayor), Kolo Toure, Armand Traore (Gael Clichy), Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini (Alex Hleb), Gilberto Silva, Nicklas Bendtner, Theo Walcott
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Martin Skrtel, Yossi Benayoun (Andriy Voronin), Lucas Leiva, Jermaine Pennant (Steven Gerrard), Damien Plessis, John Arne Riise, Peter Crouch (Fernando Torres)
Referee: Dowd, P
Venue: Emirates Stadium
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