With a first home defeat of the season, unlucky as it was, Liverpool effectively surrendered any hope of a Champions' League place while Arsenal's fourth successive victory confirmed an ability to push Tottenham and Chelsea all the way for one – something younger supporters must regard as their birthright. If hardly one of the classics that have punctuated the meetings between the teams, it did at least have one of the more dramatic finishes, as Robin van Persie volleyed a winning goal at the start of eight minutes of added time, caused in part by a nasty-looking neck injury to the former Evertonian Mikel Arteta.
Having earlier headed an equaliser, the inspirational Dutchman has 31 goals this season – one more than Liverpool have managed in 26 League games. It took an Arsenal player to score for them yesterday, Laurent Koscielny slicing into his own net and while they can point to having struck the bar or post 21 times, a carelessness with penalty kicks must be set against that. Dirk Kuyt's miss here was his team's fifth in six attempts, even ignoring last weekend's Carling Cup final, when the shoot-out could easily have gone the way of Cardiff City.
So the pride and delight in having won a trophy was quickly dissipated. Steven Gerrard, injured in England's midweek international, brought the cup out before kick-off for the most perfunctory of celebrations, waving once to the crowd and then disappearing straight back down the tunnel.
Gerrard was missed, all the more so because Charlie Adam's distribution was often askew. Jordan Henderson looked a little more like the player Liverpool thought they had bought last summer and Jay Spearing worked as hard as ever. Luis Suarez twisted and turned splendidly in the first half, winning the controversial penalty kick, but overall it was difficult for neutrals to find common ground with Kenny Dalglish about a performance the manager described as "outstanding", "unbelievable" and "fantastic".
He was on safer ground in claiming "the scoreline doesn't reflect the game", an assessment that Arsène Wenger did not attempt to disagree with. "We're disappointed because of the unbelievable performance we put in," Dalglish said. "Maybe that might be the next step, to be ugly and win. We need a wee bit of luck but we will keep going."
Wenger admitted: "We were not in the game first half and it was flattering to be 1-1 at half-time. We refused to give in, the second half was much more level and our goalkeeper and centre-forward made the difference."
It is a relief for an Arsenal manager to be able to bank on his goalkeeper, but Wojciech Szczesny again looked a worthy heir to David Seaman, Bob Wilson and the rest. In the period of sustained pressure before the interval he made three superb diving saves, including a double block form Kuyt's penalty. The actual spot-kick was struck low to the goalkeeper's right and he threw himself down to beat it away with his right hand, then kept out Kuyt's follow-up.
Some Liverpool supporters would doubtless claim that he should have been sent off for conceding the foul in the first place, but Suarez was moving away from goal, just, and there appeared to be no actual contact, the Uruguayan merely taking what he would have felt was justifiable evasive action as Szczesny lunged at him. He was beaten only by a team-mate, Koscielny diverting Henderson's fast, low cross past him after 23 minutes.
At that point Kieran Gibbs was allowing Liverpool so much space down their right flank that more goals seemed likely. Szczesny prevented one with another accomplished low save from Suarez, who then hit a post, as did Kuyt from Adam's centre. Arsenal had produced nothing more threatening than a cross-shot by Theo Walcott that Pepe Reina saved but on the half-hour Jose Enrique failed to close down the right-back Bacary Sagna and Van Persie held off Jamie Carragher to head in from six yards.
Arsenal improved thereafter, despite injuries to Arteta, who ran into Henderson, then his replacement Abou Diaby and also the otherwise anonymous Yossi Benayoun. All three are likely to be unavailable for Tuesday's Champions' League game against Milan. Arsenal would happily have taken a point back to London but at the start of added time Alex Song chipped a pass for Van Persie to volley in and they had all three, leaving Liverpool 10 in arrears.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Kelly, Carragher, Skrtel, Enrique; Spearing (Carroll 90), Adam; Henderson, Kuyt, Downing (Bellamy 88); Suarez.
Arsenal (4-2-3-1): Szczesny; Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelen, Gibbs; Arteta (Diaby 53), Song; Walcott, Rosicky, Benayoun (Gervinho 74); Van Persie
Referee Mark Halsey.
Man of the match Szczesny (Arsenal).
Match rating 7/10.