Liverpool waste chance presented by Granit Xhaka red card as 10-man Arsenal battle for Carabao Cup stalemate
A fixture contoured by false positives, Covid postponement conspiracies, and coverage of an EFL investigation that was never going to happen got all the sauce out of the way in the build-up.
Liverpool ’s first-leg hosting of Arsenal in the Carabao Cup semi-final, a week after the original date was scuppered by a feared Omicron outbreak at the Anfield club, was flavourless but for one moment of ‘He’s Done It Again!’
There were no goals but the game did register an early shower. If you were informed that Arsenal, with 24 minutes on the clock and the scoreline still reading 0-0, received a red card for sheer stupidity meshed with dangerous play and denying a scoring opportunity, the response would overwhelmingly be: Granit Xhaka again?
Why always him? Because the Switzerland international seems committed to doing rash things that undo the right ones.
Here, Andy Robertson had sent a long pass over the top in search of Diogo Jota. A backtracking Xhaka stuck out a leg to cut it out, only his foot was very high and very much planted into the forward’s chest, bringing him down at the edge of the box.
The 29-year-old protested that it was an honest attempt to win the ball, but referee Michael Oliver had a pick and mix of reasons to send him off: endangering an opponent, or denying a clear chance at goal. Pure, undiluted Xhaka and poor Arsenal.
Arteta’s men did well to continue to restrict Liverpool despite their numerical disadvantage. Perhaps that was owed to their experience of habitually being a man down, and they still offered some threat on the counter.
The hosts had started in dominant fashion and managed a flurry of half-openings. Jordan Henderson charged down Aaron Ramsdale’s kick, but the goalkeeper beat the ball away for a corner. Ben White denied Roberto Firmino, poking the ball away from his foot and Bukayo Saka blocked a Robertson shot.
Liverpool were living life at the corner flags, but not making Arsenal truly uncomfortable which was disappointing from a strong XI.
The teamsheet read like this was Liverpool’s’ first domestic cup semi-final in five years; a stellar opportunity to lift silverware this season with the club lagging in the league and having no guarantees in Europe.
Yet even after Xhaka’s red, they toiled to conjure anything of merit. A Takumi Minamino chip shaped up to catch Ramsdale out and snugly nestle into the far corner, but ended up wide.
Arsenal, meanwhile, were having a promising spell before the sending off. Alisson booted clear an inviting Saka ball, Alexandre Lacazette tried to unsuccessfully baffle the keeper with an unexpected shot from 35 yards.
By that point, Arteta already used up a substitution with Callum Chambers replacing the injured Cedric Soares. Xhaka’s recklessness ensured another as Eddie Nketiah was sacrificed for Rob Holding so a back-five could be put in play.
The first real save after the break was forced by the visitors: a counter saw Kieran Tierney speed down the left and supply Saka in space between Virgil van Dijk and Robertson. The England international took a touch to get the ball under control, but Alisson darted off his line and batted the ball away before a shot could materialise.
Liverpool had tried to enliven their play with a series of changes: Curtis Jones, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Joe Gomez and Neco Williams replaced James Milner, Fabinho, Matip and Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Minamino shockingly skied over from close range and the home side couldn’t even muster a shot on target.
There was still no golden edge, no goals, and Arteta will be the happier manager going into the second leg given the circumstances.
Saka limped off to cloud his mood, which will also be coloured by how exactly to solve the Xhaka enigma.