Now you see him, now you don’t. Liverpool emerged into the final of the Carabao Cup on a chilly evening in north London, and will face Chelsea at Wembley at the end of February. By then they will almost certainly have Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to call on again, and so Diogo Jota will simply be able to retreat once more into the background, which is how you suspect he likes it. Jota is the sort of player you tend not to notice until the critical moment, which is exactly how he managed to hurt Arsenal here.
Jota popped up with an early goal to settle Liverpool’s nerves and a second late on to settle them again, both expertly assisted by Trent Alexander-Arnold. In between, however, the second leg of this semi-final was fiercely and evenly contested, as Arsenal threw everything at their last chance of a trophy in 2022 and Jürgen Klopp’s side mustered all their street-fighting experience to hold them at bay.
Ultimately Arsenal were just a little blunt when it mattered most. Ben White should have done better for the second goal. Alexander Lacazette squandered perhaps Arsenal’s best chance. And the right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu was rushed back from injury and given a torrid evening by Jota on a dewy, slippery surface.
Here, as against Brentford at the weekend, Jota started on the left. This is probably his best role: it allows him to get the ball in space, use his quick feet to cut inside and get shots away through heavy traffic. Not that there was very much traffic to speak of as he advanced on Aaron Ramsdale in the 19th minute to score the first goal of the tie. A gorgeous, flowing move had taken Liverpool the length of the field, from deep in their own territory to the edge of the penalty area, and left Arsenal temporarily short on numbers.
This is where Jota is in his element. Prowling, shuffling, teasing Tomiyasu and eventually turning him inside out, he drifted inside and rolled a shot past Ramsdale with all the measured delicacy of a red into the middle pocket. And having weathered an early spell of Arsenal pressure, with Lacazette hitting the bar and Gabriel Martinelli getting the better of Alexander-Arnold, it felt like a crucial goal: the point at which Arsenal’s pretty buildup play collided with Liverpool’s superior cutting edge.
So it proved in a tense, tactical first half during which Liverpool gradually began to draw the sting from Arsenal. On the touchline Mikel Arteta was directing Emile Smith Rowe like an air-traffic controller, urging him forward to press Liverpool high, ordering him back into midfield to make himself available for a pass. But Liverpool were winning the midfield battle. Curtis Jones was having a fine game, Fabinho pulled off a brilliant slide tackle to deny Martinelli when he was about to shoot, and with Jordan Henderson plugging the gaps Liverpool looked more and more secure as the half went on.
Martinelli was still an occasional menace, and Martin Ødegaard brought the crowd to their feet with a couple of sumptuous passes from deep in his own half. But by and large Liverpool were able to keep them at arm’s length, and as the teams disappeared down the tunnel Arsenal badly needed to supplement their style with a little substance.
The crowd raised the volume in the second half and so did Arsenal. Arteta camped out on the edge of his technical area and demanded more speed, more thrust, more running, more of everything. Smith Rowe buzzed up and down the pitch, desperately trying to make things happen. Lacazette had a good chance to equalize on 49 minutes but lifted the ball over the bar with Andy Robertson breathing down his neck.
The problem, as ever at this thread bare time of year, for Arsenal was personnel. Even with the unexpected return of Thomas Partey from the Africa Cup of Nations, Arteta’s bench was painfully thin, with five academy youngsters and Eddie Nketiah the only attacking option. Only with 18 minutes to go did Arteta finally make his first changes.
Meanwhile, Liverpool were still creating. Ibrahima Konaté hit a post with a header from an Alexander-Arnold corner. The 17-year-old winger Kaide Gordon, thrown into the biggest game of his life with a ringing endorsement from Klopp, sliced the ball over from 10 yards after another mesmerizing run from Jota.
The game was beginning to get spiky. Konaté, a half-time substitute, earned a yellow card for grappling Lacazette to the ground; Fabinho was probably lucky to escape the same fate for a scything challenge on Bukayo Saka. Alexander-Arnold was heckled for taking an age over a corner. But it was a measure of just how edgy Liverpool were becoming: for all their promise going forward, here was a team now fumbling and fidgeting for the final whistle.
But with 14 minutes to go, Arsenal’s resistance was finally broken. The magnificent Fabinho won yet another ball in midfield. The inspired Alexander-Arnold lofted it hopefully forward again. And once again the brilliant Jota took a gamble, made the run, brought the ball down on his chest and lobbed it over Ramsdale to make the game safe. The final insult came when Partey was sent off for a high tackle on Fabinho: another suspension, another needless absence. But the wider battle had long since been lost.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism