Arsenal seize chance to be heroes after Xhaka red sets up rearguard | Jonathan Liew
With around 45 seconds of normal time remaining at Anfield, this feverish and restless semi-final finally had its first real moment of clarity.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, on as a substitute, crossed the ball blindly from the right channel. At the near post, the retreating Albert Sambi Lokonga threw himself at it. Meanwhile, a distracted Aaron Ramsdale flapped indeterminately at the cross, in the first act of a timeline that almost certainly ends with him palming a Kylian Mbappé shot into his own net for England at Qatar 2022.
And so, in the 90th minute, to win the game for Liverpool, Takumi Minamino had a free shot from five yards with no goalkeeper. It’s worth dwelling on how different this night would have felt for both sides had Minamino scored this devastatingly simple chance. For Liverpool, so leaden and meek on the night, it would have been a galvanising moment. For the exhausted 10-man Arsenal it would have been a crushing blow going into Sunday’s derby against Tottenham, the sort that extinguishes all hope in an instant. For Minamino himself, who has scored nine goals in 46 games at Liverpool without ever really seeming to do very much at all, it could have been a goal to ignite his flailing career at Anfield.
I suppose the point here is that the universe of football often likes to play nasty little tricks on us. None of the above would really have been fair, in the commonly understood sense (with the possible exception of Minamino, who on the strength of his performance deserved better than to be remembered as the villain of the piece). But you could scarcely argue that Liverpool did enough to win, or that Arsenal did enough to lose.
And so perhaps there was a certain brutal poetic justice in the fact that Minamino ended up skewing the ball comically high over the crossbar. It was Liverpool’s 14th shot of a wretched night, and their 14th off target. Such was their dominance of the ball that Alisson in goal ended up having more touches of the ball than all but one of the Arsenal team. Such was their lack of invention and insight that this felt like a curse on the game rather than a gift.
Perhaps, in hindsight, and with reluctance, we have to conclude that Granit Xhaka knew what he was doing all along. There were 23 minutes on the clock when Xhaka and Jota both chased down a long ball from Andy Robertson, with very different ideas on how they were going to reach it. “I will take the ball in my stride, use my strength to hold off the defender and fashion a strong shooting opportunity,” thought Jota to himself. “The laws of physics are there to be broken,” muttered Xhaka under his breath. “I am Granit Xhaka. I must karate-kick this ball out of the air. The universe demands nothing less.”
Perhaps the most amusing moment of this whole episode was the little waggle of the finger Xhaka gave the referee, Michael Oliver, shortly after he had booted Jota in the solar plexus and shortly before he had been sent off for the offence of denying a clear goalscoring opportunity via martial arts move. It was a gesture that said: look, I know what you’re thinking. And yet in hindsight, Xhaka’s dismissal was the moment the game began to turn in Arsenal’s favour.
For Liverpool it awkwardly raised the stakes. They had come out with a strong team and dominated the early stages. Before Xhaka’s red card they were comfortably going to win. Now, somehow, they had to. Meanwhile, Arsenal had the freedom to play on the counterattack, which you suspect is largely Mikel Arteta’s instinct anyway in big games such as this. Eddie Nketiah was sacrificed and Alexandre Lacazette moved up top in a compact 5-3-1 formation. For Arsenal, going down to 10 men instantly transformed this thankless Thursday night pandemic jaunt into a rearguard, a formative crisis, a time for heroes.
And so it proved. The last hour of the game was frequently ugly, frequently boring, and for the most part just as Arsenal wanted it. There was still plenty to enjoy: the impish Curtis Jones, who came on as a second-half substitute, the fearless solo running of Bukayo Saka, Ramsdale’s increasingly arresting habit of diving spectacularly even when the ball is nowhere near him. But for the most part it was pretty painful stuff: a reminder that without the razor edge of Mo Salah and Sadio Mané up front, without the gossamer shoes of Thiago Alcântara in midfield, this Liverpool side can look like a terribly blunt instrument.
There is always a temptation with these games to wonder whether they really mean very much at all. On the face of things, a rescheduled fixture played by two emaciated teams for English football’s third most prestigious trophy sounds like no one’s idea of a priority. But from the electric atmosphere at kick-off to the desperate slapstick of the closing minutes, no one could be left in any doubt of its significance.
After all, for its three remaining sides the 2021-22 Carabao Cup is that rarest of things: a competition without Manchester City in it. That alone makes it more winnable than anything else they will play for this season.
And so next week Arsenal and Liverpool will reconvene to do it all over again; both, you sense, with a burning urge to put things right.