Anfield has a silver bauble but place among European elite looks a distant prospect


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The Independent Football

There is a distinct sheepishness about the Carling Cup victory among those Liverpool players who really know what their club stands for and what success means.

Witness Steven Gerrard on the pitch here yesterday when, as a "surprise" for the loyal fans, he arrived to brandish the ribboned trophy. A cursory flourish of the three handles from the margins of the turf and Gerrard was off, back down the tunnel.

Liverpool have talked all week about the catalysing effect of this particular cup in their illustrious past but perhaps Gerrard and Jamie Carragher – who shared his old friend's diffidence in the Wembley mixed zone where players and press converged late last Sunday – know that there is not enough to shout about at Anfield just yet.

Carragher has as his own reference point the spring of 2001, when the League Cup led on to the Champions' League place that Liverpool's owners have their sights on once again.

It was a time when they had Emile Heskey and Michael Owen scoring with abundance, with Danny Murphy, Nick Barmby and Patrik Berger providing a permanent threat from midfield.

If anyone doubted that there was a deficit between that era and now, it was confirmed yesterday in their inability to drill yesterday's dismal Arsenal side into the dust. Vast periods of possession, 12 shots on goal, 12 corners and instead of a fourth League win of the calendar year, Anfield was instead treated to Robin van Persie's 31st goal of the season – which is more than Liverpool have managed in their entirety. The simple, effortless majesty of the Dutchman's two goals render that statistic all the more painful.

The game was always a pitifully pale imitation of the most legendary occasion between these two sides – the unforgettable evening of 26 May 1989 when Liverpool led the First Division by three points and somehow surrendered it to Arsenal through a goal even later than yesterday's.

Some of the products of Kenny Dalglish's £105m investments – Jordan Henderson most of all – looked sound enough, though nothing more than that, and Charlie Adam's profligacy with possession contributed to a messiness which does not give Liverpool the air of a side destined to be among the European elite.

For 45 minutes, it looked like the Luis and Robin show, Suarez and Van Persie being so far above everything else around them that they would set the course of the game. Suarez was unplayable in his shimmering 39th-minute run, past Alex Song, Bacary Sagna and Thomas Vermaelen, deep into the heart of the Arsenal area.

This was what Dalglish cared to dwell on in what was to be a rather selective post-match interpretation of the afternoon's events, though his conclusion that "if you are going to judge a team by scorelines it will be unfortunate" overlooked the fact that results alone will put his club into the Champions' League.

Suarez did not finish off that bull-like run by sending the ball into the net. He also sent in the 21st shot of Liverpool's season to have hit the post – more than any other club. Neither did he step up to take the penalty he had won because in his last home game, against Brighton, he became only the third Liverpool player to miss both of his first two penalties for the club.

It was before his first full game after an eight-match suspension that a statistical analysis of his season revealed a staggering 76 attempts on goal this season, of which he had put away only five. At a 6.6 per cent success rate, he actually trailed Andy Carroll. His tally currently totals six.

Suarez looked further away from the net than ever in a second half which defied Dalglish's suggestion that "we played some fantastic stuff". The riddle was why Craig Bellamy was allotted only five minutes, plus extra time, to run at Kieran Gibbs, whose positional play was not world class.

Dalglish refused to throw in the towel on a top-four place but it was Arsène Wenger who left Merseyside having best described the experience of playing Dalglish's new Liverpool. "I've seen Liverpool many times over, dominating games," the Arsenal manager said. "But as long as you are not killed off you have a chance."