There are times when Arsenal’s supporters must wonder if they are trapped in a recurring nightmare. Slowly, slowly the stone is heaved up the hill but then, just as the crest of a new horizon comes into view, there stands the forbidding silhouette of Granit Xhaka, flinging his foot like a sickle.
Arsenal had already arrived at Anfield with the bare bones of a squad - even before Cedric Soares contrived to pick up a hip injury inside the opening minute - but had, somehow, just about managed to withstand Liverpool’s opening wave of pressure. In fact, after 24 minutes, that frenetic energy that swirls off the Mersey on nights like these had just started to subdue and, along with it, the fear that a dauntingly strong Liverpool eleven might fulfil Jurgen Klopp’s wish of reducing this semi-final to a one-legged tie all along.
But then, after Arsenal had been afforded a rare venture into their opponent’s box, an initially simple and innocuous counter-attack caught them woefully out of position. The long ball sailed over Xhaka’s head towards Diogo Jota on the edge of the box and, in an eruption of panic, the midfielder slashed at thin air before catching Jota square in the chest with his follow-through. It was as rash as it was recklessly executed and by the time Michael Oliver hauled Xhaka back to his feet, the sixth red card of his Arsenal career was already awaiting him. It is by now a scene of mock horror rather than any genuine surprise.
If Arsenal’s players might have been forgiven for thinking they were walking out to their own wake when Liverpool’s team sheet landed, now they had surely begun to dig their own grave. The vultures circled: Takumi Minamino tearing into space on the left; Jordan Henderson dictating the tempo from the centre-circle; Roberto Firmino harassing Arsenal’s every rare touch while even Joel Matip romped forward in attack. Arsenal were being forced to fight tirelessly on will and survival instincts, with Mikel Arteta reverting to a back five in an effort to hold back the tide.
It felt utterly inevitable that, eventually, the dam would break. That before long, Liverpool would force Arsenal to buckle and then the goals would flow unstoppably, reducing next week’s second leg to a pale formality. And yet, as Liverpool dominated possession, streaming forwards and relentlessly scouring for openings, Arsenal kept fashioning a way to plug the cracks, sinking into their low block with Ben White in particular as tenacious as he was tactically astute.
Of course, had Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane been available, Liverpool would surely not have been so bereft of killer instinct. And yet, it was still the case that Klopp’s side had benefitted most from this fixture’s initial postponement. And as they grew increasingly frustrated, the avenues of space seemed to close in front of them. Long passages of play were spurned in the form of desparingly wild shots from range. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones were introduced but could conjure little magic to alleviate the static in midfield.
The crowd groaned and the sense of tension grew but, as the seconds bled away into stoppage time, the chance finally fell their way. The ball pinballed around the box before falling straight into the path of Minamino. With the goal gaping, he snatched at the rebound and the ball soared high and harmlessly over the bar. It encapsulated the blunt nature of Liverpool’s night. A side still firmly in charge, with almost 80% possession and 17 shots, but slightly - and crucially - out of sync, chewing without their two sharpest teeth.
When the full-time whistle blew, some of Arsenal’s players collapsed to the floor, the adrenaline that had kept them going rapidly seeping away. Others hugged and celebrated their performance like a victory. It was an effort, if not a scoreline, worthy of that. If destructive red cards have become a common theme under Arteta, that Arsenal refused to disintegrate felt like a break from the cycle. The stone might have come tumbling back down the hill, but there’s life in the tie yet.
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