Aquilani's flying start fails to halt Merida and his young guns

Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Football

As the epic-style banner in The Kop says of Liverpool's new Italian, "A hero will rise" – but they forgot to mention that first Alberto Aquilani had to play in the Carling Cup fourth round. The £20m man made his Liverpool debut last night and he could not stop Rafael Benitez's team being dumped out the competition.

When Aquilani imagined life at Liverpool it was probably a full Kop singing his name on one of Anfield's European glory nights. Instead he took his bow in the strange twilight zone of the Carling Cup, in a game between two teams made up of the has-beens and the could-bes of both squads. Rarely in the history of English football has so much expectation rested on one man's shoulders and he almost got off to a flier.

In stoppage time, Aquilani struck an overhead kick in the area that might have taken the game into injury-time had it not been blocked by the hand of Philippe Senderos. "Could be [a penalty]," said Benitez. "I haven't seen the replay. Aquilani said it was a penalty and they did on television. But you can't change the situation so we have to carry on."

The rapturous reception for the midfielder, whose ankle injury has kept him out for six months, told you just how much faith Liverpool have invested in the player. Not many clubs create a banner for a new signing before he has kicked a ball for them. But this is Liverpool where passion burns bright and a new saviour is always just around the corner.

They were beaten by an Arsenal team whose moment of brilliance came from the 19-year-old Fran Merida. He scored an exceptional opening goal to remind Arsène Wenger of his talent in the last year of his contract. Levante and Atletico Madrid made offers for Merida this summer after his impressive showing for Spain at the under-20 World Cup in Egypt. He will want more nights like this if he is to stay.

Benitez made nine changes from the team that achieved that beat Manchester United on Sunday and it was one of the two survivors from that side, Emiliano Insua, who scored a brilliant equaliser. Nicklas Bendtner scored what turned out to be the decisive goal with five minutes of the second half played but Liverpool fought to the end.

Benitez said that Aquilani has not sufficiently recovered his fitness to start against Fulham on Saturday and he also warned that Steven Gerrard is unlikely to play in that game. Benitez said: "It would have been a perfect start [for Aquilani to score the overhead kick], and when you start doing things well the fans support you more than if you just play. Hopefully he will be more lucky in the future."

Wenger's team were the more fluent and it was he who picked more "kids" than Benitez, starting with five and bringing on three more. Yet of those original five only Craig Eastmond, 19, assured in holding midfield, was making his debut. The excellent Aaron Ramsey now has 33 senior appearances; Kieran Gibbs has 27, and Kerrea Gilbert (11) and Merida (10) are no novices. These kids have played a bit.

Mixed in with the youngsters were some of those who can count themselves on the fringes of the senior squad, like Senderos and Mikael Silvestre. In Benitez's team there were starts for the likes of Jay Spearing, Damien Plessis and David Ngog. The waifs and strays of the senior squad, like Andrei Voronin and Sotirios Kyrgiakos were less than impressive.

Arsenal's kids trumped those from Liverpool and Wenger admitted he will have to work hard to keep Merida from going back to Spain: the player has stalled on signing a long-term deal. There was a comeback for Samir Nasri, who played his first game of the season, and an impressive display from Lukasz Fabianski in goal. Wenger conceded he had a chance of playing against Spurs on Saturday.

Merida's goal came when he was given the ball on the right side of the area on 19 minutes after Voronin's stray pass was helped on by Eastmond. From an unpromising position, Merida struck a thunderous shot that clipped the near post and beat Diego Cavalieri, the Brazilian in place of Pepe Reina.

The equaliser was just as brilliant and arrived this time from the unheralded Argentinian left-back Insua. Martin Skrtel hit a long ball from the back that was headed only partially clear by Gilbert. Taking it neatly on the half-volley, and with Bendtner failing to track him, Insua hit a dipping shot over the head of Fabianski.

The winner came on 50 minutes when the ball was worked out left to Merida who tapped a cross into the feet of Ramsey in the area. Bendtner took it off his toe, powered past Skrtel and struck a rising shot past Cavalieri.

Ryan Babel missed a chance from Dirk Kuyt's cross and Aquilani's overhead kick was blocked. Wenger admitted he passed up the chance to buy the Italian last year and as usual he said he did so because he had too much faith in his kids.

Arsenal (4-4-1-1): Fabianski; Gilbert, Senderos, Silvestre, Gibbs; Bendtner (Watt, 76), Ramsey, Eastmond (Randall, 76), Merida (Coquelin, 87); Nasri; Eduardo. Substitutes not used: Bartley, Frimpong, Sunu, Szczesny (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Cavalieri; Degen (Eccleston, 88), Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Kuyt, Spearing, Plessis (Aquilani, 76), Babel; Voronin, Ngog (Benayoun, 75). Substitutes not used: Reina (gk), Darby, Dossena, Sanchez Ayala.

Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).

Carling Cup Last eight

Quarter-finalists: Aston Villa, Blackburn, Man United, Portsmouth, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City

Draw made on Saturday, ties played 1/2 Dec

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