Diogo Jota shines in the spotlight in Mohamed Salah’s absence to power Liverpool to overdue Wembley final
It is perhaps a poetic encapsulation of this rearranged semi-final, framed by Covid “false positive” conspiracies, that having spent the first-leg toiling and failing to score , Liverpool’s breakthrough at the Emirates arrived when Diogo Jota failed to properly connect with a shot.
Nothing surrounding this League Cup tussle has made much sense, just noise and more noise with each fanbase looking to undercut the other by pointing to plots and poisonous accusations.
But the actual football amplified a truth that tends to get skimmed past: Jota has been a phenomenal buy for Liverpool. The match-winner here , their match-winner so often.
Adding to an attack powered by Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino had been a core conundrum for the Merseysiders. How do you attract the right kind of quality to complement them, who can be an equal in and out of possession, but understands patience may be required to regularly crack an offensive start?
And what would an elite talent, lurking in the shadows with data suggesting he could be a spotlight signing, cost?
Liverpool searched where others surprisingly weren’t: the Portugal international from Wolves posting sizeable positive actions created from strong dribbling. Jota had a habit of converting big chances; a very two-footed player who constantly caught goalkeepers off guard with his early shooting.
That or he would make them uncomfortable with low and hard strikes. All for the tidy price of £45m, which was viewed as the market-adjusted price of a Mane-type recruit in terms of profile and potential.
As The Independent previously revealed, there is a joke among Liverpool’s research department, housing the esteemed Ian Graham and his team of six industry-leading data science brainiacs, that Jota’s shot maps should be hanging up in a museum .
His first against Arsenal was not the finest example of his efficient finishing, but it underlined how effective he is in carving out an opportunity to test the keeper.
Firmino’s flick had released Trent Alexander-Arnold, functioning in a midfield position by the halfway line in this stanza of play. He supplied Jota, who dropped a shoulder that sold Takehiro Tomiyasu as he cut inside him from the left. The attacker sped towards the D, running across the face of goal, and scuffed a shot that dissected Kieran Tierney’s legs and wrongfooted Aaron Ramsdale.
It trickled into the middle of the goal, and there certainly will have been more chuckles from Liverpool’s data team. Their guy scores even when when he strikes by accident rather than design.
Jota would conjure a sensational opening, spurned – easily forgivable – by the young Kaide Gordon.
As the match increasingly got intoxicated by anything-can-happen Cup vibes, he made it his business to provide Liverpool’s sting, suffocating Arsenal’s.
Alexander-Arnold delivered a cross in from the right and Jota steamed ahead of the outrushing Ramsdale, chested down and lofted over him.
The forward would not be denied by the offside flag and Liverpool were in the League Cup final for the first time since 2016; a Wembley date with Chelsea pencilled in for 27 February.
Jota has 14 goals this season, already surpassing his total from an injury-hit debut campaign. That’s also 27 in 57 appearances for Liverpool, 41 of them being starts.
He now has six against Arsenal alone; the last two offering the club a shot of a first domestic cup under Jurgen Klopp.