By Chris Harris
No, you didn't mis-read the scoreline. It really did finish Liverpool 3 Arsenal 6. This was an incredible game and an incredible night for Julio Baptista.
The Brazilian arrived at Anfield without a goal to his name in English domestic football and, some might say, with plenty to prove. He left Merseyside a few hours later with the match ball and an enhanced reputation after his four-goal salvo propelled Arsenal into a Carling Cup Semi-Final showdown with Spurs.
The outstanding Jeremie Aliadiere got the ball rolling in the 26th minute. Robbie Fowler levelled but Baptista curled home a sumptous free-kick to restore Arsenal's lead and added another seconds before the break after Alex Song had broken his duck. Jerzy Dudek saved Baptista's penalty early in the second half but the Brazilian soon completed his hat-trick. Steven Gerrard and Sami Hyypia scored to hint at a Liverpool comeback but Baptista put the seal on a famous victory with his fourth - and Arsenal's sixth.
Baptista's goals grabbed the headlines but this performance spoke volumes for the quality and depth of Arsenal's squad. From front to back they were excellent. For Liverpool though this was a humiliation. They haven't conceded six at Anfield for 77 years and are now licking their wounds after two Cup exits at the hands of Arsenal in just four days. Rafa Benitez must be sick of the sight of them.
As expected Arsène Wenger made wholesale changes from the side which won so impressively here in the FA Cup. In came Cesc Fabregas, Baptista, Denilson, Song, Johan Djourou, Aliadiere, Justin Hoyte, Armand Traore and Theo Walcott. Manuel Almunia kept his place in goal while Toure took the captain's armband for the first time in the absence of Thierry Henry and Gilberto. And on the bench sat Henri Lansbury, a 16-year-old who joined Arsenal's academy at the age of nine.
With Liverpool equally unrecognisable from the side which succumbed on Saturday, it took a while for the game to get going. In fact much of the opening stages were taken up by a nasty injury to Mark Gonzalez, who was stretchered off after a seemingly innocuous tackle on Fabregas.
The Spaniard's misfortune made for a muted atmosphere around Anfield, in stark contrast to the booming noise which accompanied Saturday's tie. The home fans were even quieter after Aliadiere gave Arsenal the lead.
Toure showed good vision to pick out the French striker's diagonal run, Aliadiere beat the offside trap and a fantastic first touch gave him the chance to test Dudek as the keeper rushed out. His first effort bounced off Dudek's chest but Aliadiere rolled in the loose ball. One-nil to the Arsenal.
Until then Liverpool had been the better side. Stephen Warnock looked sharp on the left and tested Almunia with a handful of whipped crosses. Craig Bellamy, offering the pace the home side lacked on Saturday, looked menacing. Gerrard lashed a low shot straight at Almunia and Toure made a vital interception after Bellamy and Danny Guthrie linked up well on the right.
Given their early pressure, it was no great surprise when Liverpool equalised five minutes after falling behind. Song was penalised - somewhat unfairly - for a tackle on Fowler, Fabio Aurelio fired in the free-kick, Almunia parried, Luis Garcia showed good presence of mind to cut the ball back and Fowler netted his 12th goal in 16 games against Arsenal with a cheeky backheel.
Arsenal had to dig in as Gerrard took a brief grip in midfield but six minutes before the break the visitors restored their advantage. Aliadiere won a free kick 25 yards out; Baptista and Toure plotted while the Liverpool wall formed. Dudek, apparently expecting a piledriver from the Arsenal captain, shuffled to his left. Baptista curled the ball into the net to the keeper's right. Not a bad way to open your domestic account.
Wenger would have taken a 2-1 lead at the break. In the event his team led 4-1, scoring twice in the six minutes of stoppage time which was added on, ironically, because of Gonzalez's injury. Song grabbed Arsenal's third in fortuitous fashion as Hyypia's attempted clearance bounced in off the midfielder after Fabregas' corner had cleared a bunch of players at the near post.
Then, in the final seconds of the first half, Aliadiere broke the offside trap again and sensibly squared the ball for Baptista. The Brazilian tapped in and the away fans celebrated again, hardly believing what was unfolding in front of them.
Baptista, finally showing the promise which tempted Wenger to bring him to Emirates Stadium, had a chance to complete his hat-trick 10 minutes into the second half after Aliadiere had been tripped by Hyypia. Dudek, who knows a thing or two about saving spot-kicks, pushed Baptista's penalty away. But the Brazilian was soon celebrating again. Aliadiere, growing in confidence with every minute, picked out Baptista with a fizzing pass and he fired low into the corner. An hour gone, and Arsenal were 5-1 up. Incredible.
By now Benitez had brought on Xabi Alonso and the Spaniard, alongside Gerrard, started to exert his authority in midfield. It wasn't long before the Liverpool comeback began. With 67 minutes on the clock Hyypia headed the ball into the Arsenal box. It was half-cleared and a fortunate ricochet took it into the path of Gerrard, lurking on the edge of the area. The England midfielder executed a perfect volley to give Liverpool hope.
That hope turned to something approaching expectation when Hyypia nodded in Gabriel Paletta's cross with 11 minutes left. Surely Arsenal couldn't throw this away? No, they couldn't. With seven minutes left Aliadiere got to the byline again and squared for Baptista again. The Brazilian scored again to end Liverpool's resistance.
So, six goals, a place in the Carling Cup Semi-Finals and, just as importantly, a substitute appearance from Abou Diaby after eight months on the sidelines with a fractured and dislocated ankle. It was good to see the Frenchman back and he looked assured during his nineteen-minute cameo.
But the night belonged to Baptista. As the Anfield crowd streamed out at the final whistle, a recent hit by The Automatic was played over the tannoy: "What's that coming over the hill, is it a monster?". Not exactly. It was The Beast.
Referee: Martin Atkinson
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