Liverpool exit, Arsenal progression the result both teams needed

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LIVERPOOL, England — Eventually, both teams probably got the result their seasons needed.

It took 90 goalless minutes and a penalty shootout but Arsenal booked their place in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup at Liverpool‘s expense. Joe Willock’s spot kick — the Gunners’ sixth — only just squirmed over the line underneath Adrian to give Mikel Arteta’s side another victory over the champions courtesy of penalties after the Community Shield went the same way in August.

The way Arsenal’s players celebrated — running to the corner and jumping all over Willock — was evidence enough that they are very much interested in winning this competition for the first time since 1993. It was not that Liverpool don’t, just that they have bigger fish to fry.

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Winners in 2012 and runners-up as recently as 2016, there was a time when the League Cup in its many different guises was a focal point of their campaign, but not now. Not after winning the Champions League and the Premier League in back-to-back years.

Arsenal under Arteta are at a different stage of their development, and lifting this trophy at Wembley in March will represent a significant accomplishment after winning the FA Cup in August. Title contenders often learn how to win in the cups and Arsenal have been formidable in such competitions under Arteta.

For Liverpool, however, taking home only the League Cup this season would be considered a disappointment when set against what has gone before.

“This game tonight matters like you wouldn’t believe,” read the banner above Klopp’s programme notes. “We want to win it with all we have.”

Lower down, though, came the caveat.

“It is not a case of treating certain competitions as priorities over others. It’s about managing the situation, the circumstances and the squad. The situation and circumstances cannot be ignored.”

Liverpool’s situation is that they face a trip to in-form Aston Villa in three days’ time as they try to maintain their perfect start in the Premier League, and even though Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah were handed starts, both were substituted after an hour. Van Dijk began to walk off before the board had even gone up suggesting his withdrawal had been prearranged.

Arsenal have a game on Sunday, too, against Sheffield United at the Emirates. But Arteta — who also made changes following the 3-1 defeat to Liverpool in the league on Monday — is trying to guide his team back into the top four and bring back Champions League football.

Liverpool, meanwhile, have only got eyes for the Premier League trophy and Klopp will know that, if the last three seasons are anything to go by, he will need close to 100 points. There is no margin for error, even just a couple of weeks into the season.

It would have been different had Arsenal goalkeeper Bernd Leno not been in such fine form at Anfield. Beaten three times on the same ground on Monday, he looked determined to make sure the same thing did not happen again.

He made fine save from Marko Grujic twice, Diogo Jota and Van Dijk in normal time before making two saves in the shoo-out from Divock Origi and Harry Wilson. The save to deny Wilson, making his first Liverpool start since January 2017, was particularly impressive and it was understandable that he walked off the field wearing a huge grin.

The first half was about as exciting as the atmosphere inside an empty Anfield. That was until Neco Williams — abused by some Liverpool fans online for his performance in the last round against Lincoln — swung in a delicious ball towards the back post. It was the one bit of real quality during 45 minutes of shadow boxing and gave Jota the chance to head at goal. It was saved by a diving Leno and just as everyone inside the stadium expected Takumi Minamino to finish a simple chance from the rebound, his volley crashed off the underside of the crossbar.

Then came Leno’s masterclass to keep Arsenal in the game. Arteta has inherited a goalkeeper who can not only aid the Spaniard’s blueprint of passing out from the back, he’s also pretty useful with his hands, too.

It was perhaps destiny that a fixture that ended 5-5 last season would be goalless this time around, although Klopp admitted afterwards his team should have been “a bit more clinical.”

He will not be too disappointed when the Carabao Cup quarterfinals and semifinals are both crammed into the hectic Christmas schedule. His players will have their feet up when Arsenal are taking on Manchester City in the last eight in late December. Klopp is not the type to admit to being happy after a defeat and even though it was not the result Liverpool wanted, he will look back in May and accept it was what they needed.