How Liverpool and Arsenal’s Carabao Cup thriller entertained, enthralled and made football fun again

'It was really perfect, absolutely perfect,' Jurgen Klopp beamed at the end of an incredible night

Mark Critchley
Thursday 31 October 2019 08:39
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Klopp says Fabinho 'needed time' to adapt to Liverpool team

In Liverpool, the night before Halloween is known as ‘Mizzy Night’. It is an evening of petty vandalism, wanton destruction and general lawlessness by those not yet old enough to know better. Fireworks shatter against front doors, egg yolks slide down car windscreens and wheelie bins blaze like warning beacons in the street.

And so it was fitting that the thousands who bravely ventured to Anfield on Wednesday night were treated to an evening of youthful exuberance which at times threatened to tip over into all-out anarchy. They saw 10 goals: five to Liverpool, five to Arsenal, followed a near-faultless penalty shoot-out.

An 18-year-old scored a brace. A 20-year-old scored the goal of the game. Another 20-year-old saved the decisive spot-kick. Another 18-year-old, raised in Toxteth and making his home debut, dispatched the final penalty. The goalkeepers were beaten 19 times in all. The only disappointment was that there was no extra time.

The mood of the evening was best captured by Jurgen Klopp who, whatever you think of him, is one of the few managers who will treat football as seriously – or, more to the point, as un-seriously – as it deserves to be treated. “[It was] really perfect, absolutely perfect,” he said, beaming.

“I was so happy for the kids that they will remember their first night at Anfield for the rest of their life. Maybe as a manager I should think more about or worry about the goals that we conceded but I couldn’t care less to be honest. I couldn’t care less tonight. I enjoyed pretty much each second of the game. I don’t know when I last had so much fun in a football game.”

Fun is possibly football’s most under-appreciated quality. It is a recreational activity, after all. It is supposed to be enjoyable, yet many devotees of the world’s most popular sport only experience it through the anxiety, fear and misery of supporting their team.

Take Arsenal, for example. Ask Granit Xhaka.

After a decade of mediocrity, an understandable undercurrent of resentment now exists semi-permanently among the club’s supporters, always ready to erupt after any string of poor results.

Some Arsenal fans will have felt frustration and bitterness about their club every day for years. Were Sunday’s scenes at the Emirates really that surprising?

Klopp has warned the EFL (Reuters)

But following a successful team that is playing well and winning trophies is not always much fun either. Victories at Anfield over the past year have been characterised not by joy but relief. With success comes greater expectations, and with greater expectations comes the fear of not living up to them.

Competing in a nine-month long Premier League title race which leaves no margin for error does that to you.

It turns the act of following one of the best teams in English football’s modern memory into an exercise in survival. You are left worrying, wondering if – or when – one slip-up will scupper hopes of ultimate glory.

But there was no such rancour or anxiety on Wednesday. Instead, there was an exhibitionist feel to the game, much like there was for the last 5-5 draw between two English top-flight sides, when West Bromwich Albion helped Manchester United make Sir Alex Ferguson’s send-off memorable in 2013.

Curtis Jones celebrates his winning spot kick

Like that game at the Hawthorns then, the stakes at Anfield were low, the consequences of victory or defeat small, but a competitive edge remained. A strange happy medium was found. There was a shared appreciation – between both sets of players, staff and supporters – of how simple and joyous a game football can be when played without fear and for fun.

“The tempo of the play, the goals – this is football. This is what you play football for, for nights like this.” Those were not the words of Klopp or one of his young players but Hector Bellerin, who ended up on the losing side but was utterly enthralled by the occasion. He was not the only one.

A few hours after the final whistle, on a late local-stopping train service to Manchester, a group of young Arsenal supporters sat down with a Liverpool fan around the same age as them.

Together, they found a soon-to-be-removed YouTube highlights package of what they had just witnessed and began to watch.

They argued over whether Joe Willock’s goal was better than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s, their preferences not strictly adhering to club loyalties. They compared the dirt on their jeans, using it as a barometer for how wildly they had celebrated. They joked about how every clip in the lengthy highlights package was a goal.

And once it had come to an end, they watched it again.

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