Now you see him, now you don’t. Liverpool surged into the final of the Carabao Cup on a chilly evening in north London, and will face Chelsea at Wembley at the end of February. By then they will almost certainly have Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané to call on again, and so Diogo Jota will simply be able to retreat once more into the background, which is how you suspect he likes it. Jota is the sort of player you tend not to notice until the critical moment, which is exactly how he managed to hurt Arsenal here.
Jota popped up with an early goal to settle Liverpool’s nerves and a second late on to settle them again, both expertly assisted by the scintillating Trent Alexander-Arnold. In between, however, the second leg of this semi-final was fiercely and evenly contested, as Arsenal threw everything at their last chance of a trophy in 2022 and Jürgen Klopp’s side mustered all their street-fighting experience to hold them at bay.
Ultimately Arsenal were just a little blunt when it mattered most. Ben White should have done better for Liverpool’s second goal. Alexandre Lacazette squandered perhaps Arsenal’s best chance. Thomas Partey, fresh off the plane from Cameroon after Ghana’s surprise elimination in the Africa Cup of Nations, marched on as a second-half substitute and promptly marched straight off again, shown a second yellow card after a tired lunge on Fabinho in the dying minutes of the game.
Silly, needless and yet perhaps inevitable for a knackered, desperate team straining every nerve to get back into the game. Afterwards Mikel Arteta revealed that five or six of his squad had not even trained before the game for injury or Covid-related reasons, and it showed. The right-back Takehiro Tomiyasu looked painfully off the pace: rushed back from injury to make up the numbers, he was given a torrid evening by Jota on a dewy, slippery surface.
Liverpool were in no mood for clemency. After starting a little slowly they quickly settled into the game following the first goal, holding Arsenal at bay and thoroughly dominating in midfield. If Jota and Alexander-Arnold were the two best players on the pitch, the magnificent Fabinho was not far behind. With Jordan Henderson plugging the gaps and Curtis Jones discovering the spaces nobody else could see, Arsenal spent long periods of the game trying, and failing, to get close.
But Jota was deservedly the star of the show, starting on the left with a licence to roam. This is probably his best role, allowing him to get the ball in space and use his quick feet to cut into the centre (goal one), or sit on the shoulder of the last man and attack the gap between full-back and centre-half (goal two). And against a half-cooked Tomiyasu, Jota was in his element.
A gorgeous flowing move on 19 minutes had taken Liverpool the length of the field, from deep in their own territory to the edge of the penalty area, leaving Arsenal temporarily short on numbers. Jota shuffled, teased Tomiyasu and turned him inside out, before drifting inside and rolling a shot past Aaron Ramsdale with all the delicacy of a red into the middle pocket.
Gabriel Martinelli on the left wing was Arsenal’s main threat. Bukayo Saka struggled to get into the game on the right, Martin Ødegaard gradually faded after playing some nice early passes, and Lacazette was snappy in the tackle but otherwise largely peripheral. But poised on the ball and voracious in trying to win it back, Martinelli was at the heart of most of what Arsenal did well, and after a strong start to the second half they briefly had the momentum.
The problem for Arsenal, a familiar one at this threadbare time of year, was personnel. Even with the unexpected return of Partey from the Cup of Nations, Arteta’s bench was painfully thin, with five academy youngsters and Eddie Nketiah the only attacking option.
Perhaps this was why Arteta waited until the 74th minute to make his first changes, and in the meantime Liverpool were still creating. Ibrahima Konaté, a half-time substitute, hit a post with a header from an Alexander-Arnold corner. The 17-year-old winger Kaide Gordon, thrown into the biggest game of his life with a ringing endorsement from Klopp, sliced the ball over from 10 yards after another mesmerising run from Jota.
But with 14 minutes to go Arsenal’s resistance was finally broken. Fabinho won yet another ball in midfield. Alexander-Arnold lofted it hopefully forward again. And once again Jota took a gamble, made the run, brought the ball down on his chest and lobbed it over Ramsdale to make the game safe. Any lingering hope of an Arsenal miracle disappeared with Partey’s red card, putting him out of Sunday’s game against Burnley.
For Liverpool, meanwhile, a January that threatened to make or break their season is going disarmingly well. They would love Salah and Mané back, of course they would, but over the past fortnight they have been allowed a glimpse of a not-too-distant future too, and perhaps there is less to fear in it than they might have imagined.
In the short term, it is a decade since they won a domestic cup competition. And though Liverpool have netted far bigger fish in the meantime, the grapple for the season’s first trophy promises to be a genuinely intriguing contest.