Arsenal went into the Carabao Cup semi-final against Liverpool overflowing with hope and expectation, only to end well beaten and empty-handed on a night when manager Mikel Arteta’s trophy hopes were extinguished.
The cards looked to have fallen in Arsenal’s favour. The semi-final legs were reversed to give them the conclusion in front of their own fans after Liverpool were granted a cancellation of the scheduled first game. The Gunners had achieved a superb goalless draw with 10 men at Anfield. Liverpool were without world-class striker duo Sadio Mane and Mo Salah.
What better chance would they have to make a statement about their current status under Arteta than by beating a superpower such as Liverpool?
They made a statement all right – but not the sort Arteta would have wanted as even a stripped-down, although still strong Liverpool simply had too much nous, street wisdom, quality and ruthlessness for Arsenal.
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As Arsenal’s players applauded banks of empty red seats after the final whistle, the reckoning on their season so far was an unflattering one.
No European football after last season meant they could firmly concentrate on domestic cup competitions and the fight for a top four place in the Premier League.
Instead, the last fortnight has seen a miserable FA Cup third round shock at Championship side Nottingham Forest, and here was an opportunity squandered for a Wembley final to inject fresh momentum into their season.
And the sub-text to what was a largely average performance was that Arsenal remain a level below the top teams and now face a real dogfight for the top four, with West Ham United and Tottenham above them as they lie sixth and Manchester United on their shoulder.
It cannot be ignored that there is real potential within this Arsenal side. They have young players of high quality in Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli. Kieran Tierney, Ben White and goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale – despite an indifferent night here – are guarantees for the future.
Arteta, however, will know that a club of Arsenal’s stature and expectation will not satisfy themselves with potential forever and if they do not reach the top four then this season must be regarded as failure. Transition periods have to end sometime.
For all the quality they possess, Arsenal also have temperamental flaws that can be preyed upon by the top teams and they were on show again here.
Arsenal, as is their habit, flew out of the traps but once the superb Diogo Jota’s scuffed finish put Liverpool in front after 19 minutes, there was a lack of conviction and self-belief about their work that was palpable.
They pushed and Alexandre Lacazette missed a great chance to equalise but there was never a great sense of expectation that they would overcome Liverpool, who always carried the more ominous threat, as was confirmed by Jota’s late second.
Arsenal’s fans had stayed right with them and frustration only surfaced towards the end but once Jota scored again there was a rush for the exits. They knew the game was up, as did their players.
And yet again Arsenal showed that damaging streak of indiscipline, something Arteta either cannot or will not get to grips with. He needs to and fast.
It was there when Gabriel got himself sent off at a crucial stage of the Premier League home defeat by Manchester City. Serial offender Granit Xhaka was in the dock again for a wild challenge on Roberto Firmino that got a red card in the semi-final first leg and here Thomas Partey was guilty of a reckless, not to mention pointless, challenge on Fabinho that saw him make an early departure.
The game was in stoppage time and already lost when Partey, who at least showed his commitment as well as arguably the lack of depth in Arsenal’s squad by playing despite only arriving back from the Africa Cup Of Nations at midday, lunged in after already receiving a yellow card. It left referee Martin Atkinson with no choice other than to complete the formalities.
This was the 14th dismissal under Arteta and it is up to the manager to arrest that problem. It is simply not good enough and, obviously, hinders not just games but continuity when players are serving unnecessary suspensions.
Arteta may not be approaching crisis point and there is much to be admired in this Arsenal team but there is no doubt he is approaching a crucial phase of his time at Emirates Stadium.
He needs that fourth place as a minimum requirement and, without question, that chance is still there. It is an opportunity Arsenal and Arteta must take.
There is the nucleus of a good side but the next step is vital for Arteta and Arsenal.
The future (not that he has one in north London) of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his ludicrously expensive contract must be resolved.
Fiorentina’s Serbian striker Dusan Vlahovic appears to be the preferred option should they be able to ship out Aubameyang, although it might yet prove a deal too difficult to do in January, while Arsenal are trying to agree a loan deal for Juventus midfield man Arthur Melo.
Arsenal will find this loss a particularly bitter pill to swallow because they will never have a better chance of beating Liverpool to reach a Wembley final.
In the end, the Gunners, having raised hopes, came up short again and ensured this will be another season without silverware. This was a huge missed opportunity for Arsenal and Arteta.