ON the day that new coronavirus restrictions were imposed on Merseyside, Arsenal put Liverpool into full lockdown.
It was the first time in 39 games that Jurgen Klopp’s Champions had failed to score at fortress Anfield, a remarkable run stretching all the way back to a Champions League clash with Bayern Munich back in February 2019.
And that was enough to take the rejuvenated Gunners through to the Carabao Cup quarter-finals after edging victory in a sudden-death penalty shoot-out.
Bernd Leno was the Arsenal hero, saving spot kicks from Divock Origi and Harry Wilson before Joe Willock’s decisive effort just crept past Liverpool keeper Adrian.
And the win was a blessed relief for Mikel Arteta’s team after conceding 33 goals in their previous nine visits to Anfield.
Now Arsenal will believe they can go all the way to add this trophy to the FA Cup and the Community Shield which they have already picked up in the past two months.
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Not that Klopp will be losing too much sleep over this rare shut-out.
He has far bigger fish to fry this season and was probably still mulling over a Champions League draw which has pitched his team up against Ajax, Atalanta and Midtjylland.
Arsenal will learn their Europa League fate this afternoon but will be more convinced than ever that things are heading in the right direction.
This time last year Unai Emery was on the brink of the sack and Granit Xhaka thought he had burned his Arsenal bridges forever when he was subbed off against Crystal Palace and told the Emirates crowd to ‘eff off’.
But the Swiss midfielder has been completely rehabilitated under Arteta and this was the first time since that he has started the game as captain.
Three days after Xhaka’s infamous meltdown these teams fought out an extraordinary 5-5 draw at the same stage of the Carabao Cup.
It was one of the most extraordinary games in the competition’s history, finally settled in Liverpool’s favour on penalties.
But that was back in the pre-Covid days when more than 52,000 fans turned up to watch two reserve teams knocking seven bells out of each other.
So this one was never going to reach those levels of excitement, particularly coming just three days after meeting here in the Premier League.
Both managers predictably made wholesale changes to their starting line-ups, which meant a first Liverpool start for £45million Diogo Jota alongside Mo Salah and Takumi Minamino.
Yet it was Arsenal who showed the greater attacking intent early on and they could have been ahead as early as the 7th minute.
Xkaka’s pass opened up Liverpool’s high defensive line to the pace of Nicolas Pepe, who worked the ball to Eddie Nketiah via Joe Willock.
But the young Gunners striker was caught in two minds as he was confronted by keeper Adrian and didn’t get any kind of conviction into his shot.
And for all their subsequent possession in promising areas, the visitors were unable to create too many more problems for Klopp’s men.
Not that Liverpool were any better and it took the best part of 45 minutes for them to seriously threaten.
Jota was convinced he should have had a penalty when he was brought down right on the edge of the area by Dani Ceballos.
But referee Kevin Friend called it dead right despite not having the assistance of VAR and awarded Liverpool a free-kick which was only partially cleared to Neco Williams.
The young Welshman’s chip over the top picked out Jota for a flying header which Bernd Leno parried straight to the lurking Minamino.
But the Japanese international couldn’t keep his shot down with the goal at his mercy and volleyed powerfully against the bar when he should have scored with virtually the last kick of the first-half.
And if Leno was less than convincing on that occasion, there was no doubting the quality of his 53rd minute save from Virgil van Dijk.
Klopp had planned to withdraw his captain at half-time but had a change of heart with the match so evenly poised at the break.
And van Dijk almost rewarded his manager’s persistence when he applied a first time shot to Marko Grujic’s downward header which Leno did well to claw away at the base of the post.
That was the signal for Liverpool to really start turning the screw, with Jota’s deflected effort flying just wide before Grujic drew another sharp save from Leno.
Many Arsenal fans wondered if Arteta had sold the wrong keeper when he allowed Emiliano Martinez to sign for Aston Villa the other week.
But German international Leno certainly earned his pay last night with further saves to deny Jota and Grujic again.
It wasn’t all one-way traffic, though, and Rob Holding’s 70th minute bullet header threatened to break the deadlock but was directed straight at Adrian.
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