The Last Word: Looks can deceive

As championships approach, this year's Gunners supporters are in a situation uncannily similar to that of last year's Liverpool.

henry 88 (photo credit: )
henry 88
(photo credit: )
Last year's Champions League final was clearly a night dreams were made of. There will be few true Liverpool fans who will ever forget that night in Istanbul, or how their team, that season's perennial underdog, came back from 3-0 down at halftime to level the game in the second half, and then beat the mighty AC Milan on penalties. Steven Gerard's towering performance led his hometown side to the unlikeliest of victories that allowed the reds to qualify automatically for this season's Champions League, despite a poor fifthplace finish in the 2004/05 English Premier League. Now every Arsenal and Tottenham fan knows what I am going to write now. It just can not be ignored how the situation this year's Gunners side find themselves in seems uncannily similar to that of last year's Liverpool. I know how nervous it makes Arsenal fans to hear this as they are too scared of the prospects of failure, but here we have an Arsenal team looking odds on to make it to the Paris final to face either Barcelona or, dare we say it, AC Milan. A 1-0 home win over what appeared to be an out of sorts Villarreal team last week puts them in good stead for Tuesday night's second leg in Spain. And the 1-1 draw between Arsenal and fellow Londoners Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday has made it increasingly likely that the team in red will finish in fifth place in the league, behind Spurs. As everyone knows, if Arsenal finishes fifth and somehow wins the Champions League it will qualify for next year's competition - most likely at the expense of its north London rivals - just as Liverpool did last season. However, despite the initial similarities between the two situations, the makeup of and outlook for the two teams is very different. If Arsenal manages to get to the final, let alone win it, it will be a triumph for the club's French manager, Arsene Wenger, who will be celebrating a decade in charge of the club. Taking a look at the Arsenal side that faced and beat Villarreal last week and the one which drew with Spurs, what stands out is the number of youngsters on the team. From 22-year-old Swiss center back Philip Senderos to Hleb and Fabegas in midfield and the lanky Kanu clone Emmanuel Adebayor up front, Arsenal exudes exuberant youthfulness. As one Arsenal fan rarely fails to remind me, the entire Arsenal back four cost a fraction of the price of most Premiership players. And this is all without mentioning the wonderful Thierry Henry. Arsenal is moving into a new stadium next season and Wenger is building a team for a new era. The Liverpool team of last year, however, was a team in transition, built on many older players. Goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek may have been a hero of last year's final with his Bruce Grobbelaarstyle wobbly legs during the penalties, but he knew he was on his way out before the game started. Other players who featured in the final, like Didi Hamman, Milan Baros and Vladimir Smicer also soon saw their Anfield days numbered. And it hasn't all come together this year. The Spaniards that Rafa Benitez has bought - from Garcia to Morientes - have blown hot and cold since last year, and Liverpool was easily knocked out of the Champions League. This will not be the fate of Arsenal. Even if it doesn't beat Milan or Barcelona, which is a lot more likely than many people have predicted, Arsene Wenger is clearly looking to the future. And if the team ends up not qualifying for next year's Champions League, Arsenal fans should still stay positive. Because Europe should watch out for this young Arsenal team in the coming seasons.