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Football: Benitez's recipe for Euro success eludes Wenger.

Byline: NICK SMITH European Comment

ARSENE WENGER called it his moment of truth - but one inescapable fact keeps coming back to haunt him and is set to do so again at Anfield on Tuesday.

That his teams just aren't cut out for these kinds of challenges - certainly not in the same way Rafael Benitez moulds his European troops when they set out to conquer the Continent.

Whether it's guile, graft, know-how, even a bit of luck, whatever you need on your side, Liverpool always seem able to find them and under Benitez you always expect them to.

But the most frustrating thing for Wenger is that even when Liverpool fail to follow orders to keep it tight and not concede early, even when the Arsenal manager delivers the first psychological blow - it's still not good enough.

George Gillett's seat should have been the only place where wide open spaces were appearing amongst Liverpool's personnel night.

Arsenal tore that game-plan apart with a stirring spell of pressure that ended with Emmanuel Adebayor being allowed so much room to head in, the visiting defence must have been setting up their marking back at Highbury.

Even the magic touch he has in Europe can't work miracles for Benitez and find a formula that defends set-pieces.

But then the key elements came to the surface. Steven Gerrard epitomised his team's ability to raise their game at the crucial moment in this competition with the driving run that enabled Dirk Kuyt to slide in and cancel out the lead and, even at that embryonic stage, make Anfield an even more daunting prospect.

It's an intimidating enough experience for the visiting side in a second leg even when Liverpool aren't armed with an away goal - and Wenger knows it.

He usually shrugs off prematch hype with that knowing smile but his European trophy drought is no laughing matter and the reason why he uncharacteristically chose to publicly underline the importance of last night.

And above all, it shows that he was always worried about his team's prospects in this tie and rightly so too.

R afael Benitez is understandably and unashamedly envious of the Frenchman's record on the domestic front.

But in Europe Benitez seems to have it all sussed out as he proved again last night. Arsenal scored and Wenger stood up to raise his arms in triumph; when the equaliser came, Benitez sprang from his seat just as quickly but raised his hands only to send out more instructions.

A telling difference in approach and attitude that sums up the shortcomings in Europe of both Wenger and his suddenly faltering side.

Which only adds weight to the increasing feeling that they will be there for the taking on Tuesday - simply because they have yet to prove they have what it takes on this stage.

Yes, they did get to a final in 2006 but would have blown that if it weren't for Riquelme's casual swing at a penalty in the last minute of their semi-final at Villarreal.

And when they reached Paris, their fingertips brushed the trophy before it was snatched from their grasp late on.

Nothing now suggests they are any wiser and more galvanised by the experience.

And the hysterical behaviour of their captain William Gallas at Birmingham last month is proof they haven't matured.

True champions and great sides - and Wenger has moulded at least two during his reign - don't do what Arsenal have been doing of late. Gallas's hysterics at St Andrews. The FA Cup surrender to Manchester United. And not only struggling, but ultimately failing, to beat Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Wigan.

Wenger was even tactically outfoxed by Avram Grant in the midst of all that.

And just when they took the initiative in this tie, they promptly conceded that catastrophic away goal.

The burden of failure is weighing heavily on them at home and abroad.

Liverpool don't have that, which explains why there was a renewed freshness and freedom in their play after they made it 1-1.

Arsenal, by contrast, gradually ran out of ideas, were nervy in possession and resorted to longball tactics as foreign to their manager as his youth policy.

Yet, how can you write off a side that goes to the San Siro and dethrones the European champions?

Well, back then in the previous round, AC Milan went into the home leg without an away goal, a vulnerability Liverpool haven't left themselves open to for next week.

And Liverpool know from their own experience in the round of 16 that the San Siro is certainly not Anfield.

It doesn't intimidate or inspire (depending on which camp you're in) in the same way and that's why Arsenal are guaranteed there will be no repeat of the 6-3 embarrassment they inflicted in their last cup meeting.

In fact, it's likely to be like nothing they have experienced before, exactly the same circumstances that did for Chelsea twice - and could well do again depending on next week's events.

But before anyone looks too far ahead, Wenger still has 90 minutes left of his moment of truth.

However, with Liverpool adapting so well to this competition so effortlessly again, chances are he won't be able to handle the truth.

It's an intimidating enough experience for the visiting side in a second leg even when Liverpool aren't armed with an away goal - and Wenger knows it

CAPTION(S):

Dirk Kuyt; Fernando Torres breaks free as Williams Gallas takes a tumble last night Picture: ANDREW TEEBAY
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Apr 3, 2008
Words:915
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