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Class tells at the Emirates

ARSENE WENGER rarely gets his pre-match forecasts wrong and with an old foe back in town, it was only to be expected he would gaze into his crystal ball once more.

“Matches between Arsenal and Liverpool always provides entertainment,” Wenger wrote in his programme notes. “The Carling Cup is always a feast, there’s not as much pressure and everyone’s happy.”

Everyone, that is, except Rafa Benitez and his squad; though Wenger was correct in predicting the Emirates Stadium would crackle in the heat of an absorbing cup tie, that, ultimately, was no consolation for Liverpool’s frustrated manager.

While many Reds may have feared the worst going into this tussle – namely a repeat of the horror scoreline when the sides were last paired together in the Carling Cup – any concerns proved unfound.

High on energy, effort and endeavour, Liverpool certainly made a huge contribution to this entertaining affair and, occasionally, passed and moved with the verve of their exalted hosts.

Ultimately, however, they were found wanting in terms of extra class; huff and puff is all very well when you can blow a house down but, much to Benitez’s disappointment, his squad does not have the same strength in depth as Wenger’s has.

Yet, in contrast to recent seasons, this is not an exit from the Carling Cup that will have many seething with rage; there may have been a debacle in North London at this stage of affairs 12 months ago but that was never likely here.

Nor was the kind of drubbing which Arsenal inflicted on a night of high farce at Anfield in January 2007, when a ridiculous contest finished with them scoring six times to expose a number of Red shortcomings.

Benitez was adamant beforehand that he would not oversee another calamity and he was right; while the final blast of Alan Wiley’s whistle signalled the end of their Carling Cup ambitions for another year, he could at least hold his head high.

Granted better fortune and a sharper cutting edge, Liverpool could well have celebrated a second significant victory in the space of four days and had Philipp Degen fired them into the lead early on as he should have done, this tie would have been very different.

To use a pun, though, Arsenal simply had too many guns; that they put a move together of 10 rat-a-tat-tat passes together before Nicklas Bendtner rifled in the tie’s defining goal said everything about them.

This competition might not have the lustre it enjoyed during its golden period in the 1980s and there is no disputing many regard it is football’s equivalent of Marmite but there is certainly a place for it in the calendar.

Make no mistake, it is a prize worth winning but, with an important Premier League fixture at Fulham on Saturday and a Champions League clash against Lyon next Wednesday they dare not lose, it was inevitable Benitez shuffled his pack here.

“This is a special competition in which you try to give opportunities to young players or players who are not playing,” said Benitez. “These things together make it difficult but we have more experience now and some players with more quality.”

That meant rests for many of the seniors whose efforts pummelled Manchester United into submission last Sunday and an opportunity to shine for those who are trying to catch Benitez’s eye or the men who have found starts hard to come by.

In total, there were nine changes but that did not mean it was a team made up of novices.

Far from it – that Dirk Kuyt, Martin Skrtel, Emiliano Insua and Ryan Babel were all on from the start showed Benitez had travelled to win.

Despite their best efforts – Insua, in particular, was an eye-catcher and scored a goal of the highest quality – it wasn’t enough but for the first time this season, Benitez can look back at a defeat and see positives.

Compared to those dreadful efforts against Tottenham and Aston Villa, the dispirited mess at Sunderland and at the shambles at home to Lyon, this was streets ahead.

Even those figures of mass derision Degen and Andriy Voronin made telling contributions.

What’s more, there was a first appearance for Alberto Aquilani; given a thunderous ovation by Liverpool’s visiting supporters, the sight of him passing and moving with a Liver Bird on his chest at long last was always going to attract interest.

“Aquilani is a talented player but has been troubled by injuries,” Wenger observed. “He came on when we played Roma last season and is a player I know well. We followed him a year or two ago but he didn’t play much last year.”

Only time will tell how much he plays this season but if he can consistently play the kind of glorious cross-field passes which set Degen galloping free late on, the banner which proclaims ‘A hero will rise’ might just prove to be spot on.

Try as he might to fashion a second equaliser for the Reds, Aquilani, in fitting with his team-mates, came up just short but there is no reason for soul-searching as you contemplate a fifth reverse in six outings.

Yes, Liverpool are still a work in progress but their last two performances have suggested that the corner, at long last, has been turned.

ARSENAL (4-3-3): Fabianski; Gilbert, Senderos, Silvestre, Gibbs; Merida (Coquelin 87), Ramsey, Eastmond (Randall 76); Bendtner (Watt 76), Eduardo, Nasri.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Cavalieri; Degen (Ecclestone 88), Kyrgiakos, Skrtel, Insua; Kuyt, Plessis (Aquilani 77), Spearing, Babel, Ngog (Benayoun 75), Voronin.

Goals - Merida (23), Insua (28), Bendtner (52)

ATTENDANCE: 60,004

REFEREE: Alan Wiley

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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