Tuesday, August 16

Arsenal try to deny Liverpool in the first leg despite Granit Xhaka’s red card | Carabao Cup

Mikel Arteta needed a display of Arsenal’s character in a field where he has shown little in recent years. It seemed to need a miracle as well when Granit Xhaka’s final red card gave Liverpool 66 minutes plus a five-minute discount to take control of the Carabao Cup semi-final. He received both, and more, as Arsenal put on a tireless display to put down Jürgen Klopp’s side at Anfield.

There is a long way to go in this semi-final, but the reaction to the final whistle showed where the advantage lies and who started the first leg with the most confidence. The exhausted Arsenal players high-fived as their fans celebrated a goalless draw in the Anfield Road stands. Liverpool lacked inspiration and insight throughout, and must rediscover both to advance to a final meeting with Chelsea on February 27.

The two coaches selected arguably their strongest available teams, although the available team for Klopp was certainly stronger than Arteta’s as Covid, injuries and the African Cup of Nations had a greater impact on Arsenal’s depth. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s first appearance in the competition in five years underscored the seriousness of the Liverpool manager’s approach to the semi-final. A hip injury suffered in the first minute by Cédric Soares, who replaced the injured Takehiro Tomiyasu on the right side and sent off 10 minutes later, reflected the misfortune of the Arsenal manager. But it wouldn’t end there.

Arsenal got off to a vibrant start and were committed to attacking in numbers when the opportunity arose on the counter. That policy had to be abandoned, however, when Xhaka saw the direct red card for denying Diogo Jota a clear scoring opportunity, while volleying him in the ribs just in case.

The pattern of the tie changed in an instant. At one point Arsenal were up front with Bukayo Saka breaking down the right and focusing low on Eddie Nketiah, who failed to connect to his full extent, plus Alexandre Lacazette, who also failed to apply a finishing touch. The next, they were carved into the back by a long diagonal ball from Andy Robertson towards Jota. The Portuguese international was closing in on Xhaka’s blind side and was ready to pass clean on Aaron Ramsdale’s goal when the Arsenal midfielder made an honest, albeit desperate, attempt to punt. Instead, he connected with the Liverpool forward’s chest and referee Michael Oliver immediately showed Xhaka’s fifth career red card at Arsenal.

Granit Xhaka fouls Liverpool's Diogo Jota, causing the Arsenal midfielder to see a direct red card
Granit Xhaka fouled Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, causing the Arsenal midfielder to see a direct red card. Photography: Paul Currie / Shutterstock

When the Swiss international left, after discussing his lost cause with Oliver for a long period, Arteta consulted his backroom staff about his emergency measures. The result was Rob Holding for the unfortunate Nketiah and a switch to a five-man defense. That understandable play left the visitors with a fragile-looking midfield made up of three Saka, Albert Sambi Lokonga and Gabriel Martinelli, but the trio dug in to help frustrate Liverpool for the remainder of the first half.

Klopp’s side had dominated possession from the start but their clearest starts before the break came against Arsenal’s 11 men. Ramsdale was lucky when Jordan Henderson floored his punt attempt and the rebound went wide from the open goal. The goalkeeper quelled the Liverpool captain’s second bite at the baseline. Ben White nearly scored his own goal by deflecting a dangerous cross by Takumi Minamino away from the lurking Roberto Firmino and just off the far post. Robertson’s right-footed shot was then deflected by Lokonga. However, against 10 men, the hosts initially found it difficult to find their way.

To Arsenal’s credit, they were not simply retired to preservation mode before next week’s second leg in the Emirates. Saka looked to attack Liverpool’s left flank every time he received possession, while Kieran Tierney pressed forward as a winger on the opposite flank. But his duties were mostly limited, unsurprisingly, to shutting down Liverpool’s attacking options.

Minamino was close early in the second half with a misguided cross that went over Ramsdale and barely strayed from the far post, though the chances remained slim. It was another 20 minutes before Liverpool and Minamino again caused problems for Ramsdale. The Japanese international fired wide from a tight angle after being released by a slippery pass from Robertson. In the 70th minute neither team had produced a shot on goal.

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The team with a valid excuse erased its target two minutes later. Tierney found time and space down the left to intercept Saka’s run into Liverpool’s penalty area with an attractive cross. The Arsenal winger, who would add to Arteta’s injury concerns with an apparent hamstring problem, put up an awkward first touch before attempting to lift the second over Alisson’s advance. The Liverpool goalkeeper produced an important block at point-blank range, to the evident despair of Saka and the Arsenal bench.

But the biggest frustration belonged to Liverpool. Klopp made a triple change in an attempt to refresh his squad, introducing both Curtis Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to inject much-needed creativity into midfield. The effect was minimal. Two substitutes combined to create Liverpool’s best start of the night in the 90th minute when Neco Williams found Oxlade-Chamberlain. His center was snatched from Ramsdale’s hands by a header from Lokonga. The misguided punt fell to Minamino in front of an open goal. Had to dial. Instead, he cut high on the Kop.


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