Liverpool and Arsenal played the first leg of their Carabao Cup semifinal clash at Anfield on Thursday evening, and everything remains open at this point after both teams failed to find the back of the opposition net. This game was actually supposed to be the rematch, but the Emirates one was postponed from last Thursday for two weeks at Liverpool’s request and is now set to be the deciding contest.
The red card
The only moment of the match which may have had some influence over the whole tie happened in the 24th minute, when Granit Xhaka picked up a straight red card for taking out Diogo Jota.
Looking at the incident repeatedly, it doesn’t seem as if Xhaka knew too much about Jota’s movements and his action doesn’t seem to have held any malice towards the Liverpool attacker, though it was pretty reckless. However, there hardly be any discussion about Jota being denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity, and referee Michael Oliver practically had no choice but to reach for his back pocket.
It remains to be seen in what way the red card will be treated officially, and the length of the consequent ban depends on it. If it’s judged as a case of simply denying a goalscoring opportunity, Xhaka will miss the following two matches. It would have been one, but the fact that he’s already been sent off directly once this season means another one is now mandatory. It also means that in the case that the foul is interpreted as dangerous foul play, which normally warrants a three-match suspension, Xhaka will miss four. But whatever happens, he certainly won’t be available for selection in the second leg.
The Arsenal defence
Arsenal’s defence has been criticized, ridiculed even, for a very long time. Even back in the days of Arsene Wenger in charge, they frequently conceded ridiculous goals which cost them numerous league points over the years.
However, manager Mikel Arteta, who played under Wenger himself, seems to have discovered the right defensive setup. The centre-back partnership of Ben White and Gabriel Magalhaes is not only proving capable of keeping things under control in that area, but given that they’re both 24 years old and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale is 23, it seems the future of Arsenal’s defence is sorted for a number of years to come.
White and Gabriel both played rather well in this match, as did Ramsdale, Kieran Tierney on the left and Calum Chambers, who replaced the injured Cedric Soares on the right after just 10 minutes. They may have been expected to have problems in the absence of the protection usually provided by Thomas Partey, especially after Xhaka was sent off, but they did rather well against Liverpool’s makeshift attacking line.
Liverpool pale without Salah and Mane
Liverpool were obviously without their top two forwards in Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane who, like Arsenal’s Partey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, are currently away representing their countries at the African Cup of Nations. In their absence, Jota and Takumi Minamino flanked Roberto Firmino, and the three of them were tasked with trying to create problems for Arsenal’s defence.
It’s fair to say that they failed to do that completely. In fact, Liverpool’s first shot on target came in 92nd minute, despite the fact they had been playing against an outnumbered opponent since the 24th. The only moment when they really could have scored before that was the moment when Xhaka earned his red card, and upon reflection, it seems it was a sacrifice well made from the Swiss international.
It stands to reason to presume things would have been very different with Mane and Salah involved, and if his team get through the second leg and into the final, manager Jurgen Klopp will be glad to have his stars back when they go to face Chelsea.
Quite apart from Salah and Mane, Liverpool missed injured midfielder Thiago Alcantara, as well as Naby Keita (AFCON), in their ranks. The trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and James Milner, while unsurprisingly very strong in the middle of the park when it came to the defensive side of things, lacked any creativity going forward, and the home team looked much more lively towards the end when former Arsenal man Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and young Curtis Jones entered the fray. And without Divock Origi too, Klopp had no proper options to freshen things up from the bench in attack.
Meanwhile, Trent Alexander-Arnold seemed not to have fully recovered from the COVID-19 infection, and his influence down the right flank was accordingly diminished. The same could be said of Andy Robertson on the left, though the Scotland captain had no such excuse.
Throughout the Liverpool team, there wasn’t a player, barring Joel Matip and arguably goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who performed to usual standards, not even Virgil van Dijk. It was a poor evening for the Merseysiders all-round, very reminiscent of the 1-0 defeat away to Leicester City in the Premier League on
Linked with Liverpool in the past, and likely again at some point in the future, Bukayo Saka showed once more his quality has long passed from apparent to quite obvious.
The 20-year-old England international was very lively from the first whistle to his withdrawal from the game in favour of Nuno Tavares in the 81st minute. Deployed on the right, he frequently took advantage of Robertson’s trademark forays into Arsenal’s half, always being there to pick the ball up and make a darting run in behind the Liverpool left-back.
Only on those occasions did the Gunners look likely to score, though his two best chances were thwarted by Alisson and Matip.
Meanwhile, no-one can have any doubts about Arsenal having a real gem in Saka, and this is definitely a player they have to look after carefully in the future; top European clubs will come for him at some point, it’s only a matter of when, and Arsenal must make sure he has a reason to reject any potential proposal to go anywhere.
Into the second leg
Liverpool will travel to North London next Thursday, and the tie is as finely balanced as it was before the Anfield match. The Gunners are obviously happy with getting through the first leg without conceding a goal, and that cannot be said about Liverpool.
However, Liverpool are still more than capable of hurting Arsenal at the Emirates if they get a hold of themselves and play like they know how to. The same players should be available to Klopp, providing there are no new COVID cases in the squad, and they could even have Origi back in contention by then.
Arsenal will have neither the means nor the tools to take a different approach. They’ll be trying to throw another ‘wet blanket’ over the match, regardless of the fact they’ll be playing in front of their own fans this time. Without Xhaka and Cedric, Arteta’s options are increasingly limited, and to make matters more difficult, they’ll be facing arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League on Sunday, while Liverpool face Brentford at home.
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