By Richard Clarke
Arsenal reached the Quarter-Finals of the Carling Cup for the seventh successive season with a 2-1 win over Liverpool at Emirates Stadium on Wednesday night.
This was an action-packed, top-quality affair between the fringe versions of these two ‘Big Four' outfits and all the goals were of the highest calibre.
Fran Merida fired home a bullet of a shot in the 19th minute but Emiliano Insua responded shortly afterwards with an even better effort - a dipping volley from 25 yards.
Neither side was prepared to take a backward step after that. Although they matched each other blow for blow Arsenal had the edge and it was no surprise when they took the lead five minutes after break. This time Nicklas Bendtner finished off another slick move.
Liverpool pushed forward towards the end and Ryan Babel should have tapped home a cross from Dirk Kuyt with 11 minutes to go.
However, Wenger's men deserved their luck tonight. They were classy when they needed to be and were only under real pressure when they were trying to see out the game.
This was not a young Arsenal side but it was very much a second-string. The poise and efficiency of this result suggests the Frenchman has strength in depth for the Premier League and Champions League campaigns to come.
For once, Wenger's Carling Cup XI was more experienced than the team they were facing. Samir Nasri (broken leg) and Lukasz Fabianski (knee) were playing their first games of the season after medium-term injuries. Eduardo and Bendtner were also given a start after recent spells on the sidelines. Mikael Silvestre, Fran Merida, Kieran Gibbs and Aaron Ramsey had spent a lot of the season on the bench for the first team so they needed competition. Kerrea Gilbert was now a "veteran youngster" - if the term exists - so the most interesting inclusion was Craig Eastmond. The 18-year-old was mainly known as a right back in the Reserves. Tonight he was deputising for Alex Song as Arsenal's holding midfielder.
The rest of the youngsters in the squad were named on the bench. Jack Wilshere (ankle) and Carlos Vela (knee) missed out through injury.
Liverpool's starting line-up was littered with players who had been on the fringes of their first-team - Andriy Voronin, Babel, Insua and David Ngog. The only regular was captain Kuyt. However Rafa Benitez did name the likes of Yossi Benayoun, Pepe Reina, Andrea Dossena and debutant Alberto Aquilani on the bench.
Emirates Stadium was packed tonight. Tickets had been on sale for as little as £10 for adults and £5 for children. Consequently, they had not lasted long.
The opening quarter was adventurous and energetic. It seems as though the impatience of youth was overtaking both sides.
Liverpool had the clearest chance. In the ninth minute, Voronin set Ngog free in the right-hand channel. His backheel gave right back Philipp Degen a sight of goal. The Swiss international snatched as his chance and drove wide of the far post.
Arsenal took another seven minutes to forage a decent response. Merida freed Gibbs who tapped a pass into the path of the sprinting Bendtner. His one-two with Eduardo so nearly brought dividends.
There was a feeling that the home side were starting to flex their muscles. And they showed their true strength in the 19th minute. Eastmond robbed Voronin after a throw-in on the right. Merida collected the ball on the corner of the area, took a couple of paces forward and rifled home a rising drive high into the net via the inside of the post.
The Spaniard slid towards the corner flag before being enveloped by ecstatic team-mates. Television pictures showed Cesc Fabregas, a fellow Catalan, was the first on his feet in the crowd.
Although Senderos made an important interception from Voronin shortly afterwards, it seemed like Arsenal were going to kick-on from here.
If anything Liverpool's equaliser was even more out of the blue than Merida's effort. Babel's knock-down fell to Insua 30 yards out. The left-back met the ball with a dipping volley that flew over the stranded Fabianski.
Arsenal recovered well from the blow. Bendtner drove into both the sidenetting and the keeper's arms while Merida nearly profited from a sweeping move orchestrated by Eduardo.
Four minutes from the break, Nasri released Eastmond on the right. His cut-back so nearly reached the Croatian in the centre. A couple of corners later, Diego Cavalieri missed his punch and a good old-fashion goalmouth melee ensued. It only ended when Bendtner swivelled a shot into the midriff of the lucky keeper.
Liverpool had looked decent on the break but when the whistle blew Arsenal were ahead on points if not on the scoresheet.
Despite that, the visitors began the half on the offensive. In the opening minutes they peppered the home side with crosses who, until they scored, looked to be slightly shaken.
The goal, however, was class. It all started with Eastmond's sweeping ball out to Merida on the left-hand side. He speared a pass to Ramsey on the penalty spot. The Welshman fed Bendtner who created a yard of space and lashed the ball high into the net.
Again Arsenal looked good for the advantage. Again Liverpool pushed them back. Voronin and Degen weaved a web of intricate passes between themselves before the Ukrainian fired inches wide of the far post.
Babel's free-kick was easily saved by Fabianski midway through the half and Tony Spearing sliced an effort well wide.
With 15 minutes left, Wenger brought on Sanchez Watt and Mark Randall for Bendtner and Eastmond. Liverpool brought on Aquilani, a move that brought raptures from the travelling support.
They should have been cheering again with 11 minutes left. Kuyt raced into space on the right and crossed low into the area.
Inexplicably Babel failed to nudge the ball home.
Eduardo fired cross-goal but Liverpool were now going for broke and Voronin's vicious drive was scooped up by Fabianski.
Liverpool's desperation grew as the seconds ticked by while Arsenal were happy to play the ball into the corners when they could.
The visitors had claims for a penalty in stoppage time when Aquilani's overhead kick cannoned back off Senderos. It certainly hit the Swiss defender's arms but from utterly point-blank range. The whistle blew a minute or so later.
Arsenal were through on a night that suggested Wenger's squad might have hidden depths.
- Silvestre (C)
- Merida 87 Goal!
- Eastmond 75
- Bendtner 75 Goal!
- Randall 75
- Coquelin 87
- Watt 75
- Degen 88
- Insua Goal!
- Plessis 76
- Kuyt (C)
- Ngog 74
- Pepe Reina
- Daniel Sanchez Ayala
- Eccleston 88
- Aquilani 76
- Benayoun 74