Liverpool assistant manager Pep Lijnders has expressed his excitement at Harvey Elliott's return to full training, saying that the youngster "didn't lose his football brain."

Elliott has been out of action since September, having dislocated his ankle in a 3-0 Leeds United. The teenager had played in all four of Liverpool's previous games this season.

The 18-year-old returned to full training earlier this week and Lijnders smiled as he was asked about the former Fulham player at a news conference ahead of Liverpool's EFL Cup semi-final second leg at Arsenal.

"Let me say it like this, he didn't lose his football brain," Lijnders said, though he did not put a timescale on Elliott's return to match action.

"He shows immediately what he's about. It would be a crime if you would not play him if he trains like this, but we know it's just the start of the team training. He needs time and we go step by step, of course.

"Some players they never knock on the door, they run through it – and he's one of them."

Elliott, the youngest ever Premier League player, returned to Merseyside at the end of last season having enjoyed a productive loan spell at Championship side Blackburn Rovers, where he registered the joint-third most assists in the division (11), behind only Emiliano Buendia (16) and Michael Olise (12), who is now playing a starring role for Crystal Palace.

He was also the only player in the Championship to register as many as three second assists – which Opta defines as a pass/cross that is instrumental in creating a goal-scoring opportunity – and was eighth overall for successful passes into the final third (519), ahead of the likes of Olise (495), Leicester City's Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall (478 while on loan at Luton Town) and Tottenham's Oliver Skipp (441 while on loan at Norwich City).

In his three Premier League starts and one substitute appearance this season before his injury, Elliott created five chances, more than team-mate Curtis Jones (three) has in his four starts and three appearances from the bench, and won possession in the middle third of the pitch (17) more often than Jones (11) and even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (12) despite the former Arsenal man making 15 league appearances, seven of which have been starts.

Lijnders also had words of praise for Liverpool's opponents on Thursday, crediting the work that Mikel Arteta has done since taking charge of Arsenal just over two years ago and noting how well the Gunners played in the goalless first leg at Anfield despite going down to 10 men in the first half when Granit Xhaka was sent off.

Arteta, too, has been happy to utilise younger players as he continues to freshen up Arsenal's squad.

"First of all, Arsenal always had really good players but, for me, they have a really good team at this moment," Lijnders added. "I think credit to Mikel, they matured.

"You see many games where the team with 10 men plays better than the 11 – not play better but they give just this extra step, they give this extra [bit] more because they know they have one player less. What happens many times with the 11 players is that they do one thing less because they know they have one player more. That's exactly what happened.

"Anyway, what I like about the Arsenal game is that we wanted to surprise them with our intensity and that's what we did until Xhaka went off.

"I really think that in football the only advantage exists if you go to the last minute of the game, to be honest. Before that, it's quite even. I think Mikel did an unbelievable job. The team is a proper team.

"They were struggling as well with injuries and, how you said, COVID cases and they had to change as well in the last minute, but if you can play with 10 men like that then you have a mature and good team."

Mikel Arteta hit back at Arsenal's critics following the postponement of Sunday's north London derby as he insisted "we did the right thing."

The Gunners were due to make the short trip to Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for a showdown with their fierce rivals, but the game was called off due to a lack of players available to Arteta.

Arsenal were accused of exploiting the Premier League's rules, with the majority of players absent due to injury, suspension or Africa Cup of Nations duty.

The club only one confirmed positive COVID-19 case at the time of lodging an application to get the derby called off, but the Premier League deemed they were unable to meet the required number of available players – 13 outfielders and a goalkeeper – despite their Under-23s having a squad of 16 for a game on Friday.

Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte felt the decision to postpone the match was "very, very strange."

Arsenal manager Arteta hit back on the eve of Thursday's EFL Cup semi-final second leg at home to Liverpool, which he expects to go ahead despite "issues that have not been resolved" in his squad.

Asked what he thought about people saying Arsenal could have played the game, the Spaniard said: "We played against Forest [in the FA Cup] when we had 10 players out and we went to Liverpool and we had many players out.

"We have done that and we have played with academy players when we already have the youngest squad in the league.

"Tomorrow if we have everybody available as I suspect we will play the match because we want to play football."

He added: "I think more than hate [being directed towards Arsenal] there is a lot of respect for Arsenal and that comes from the history of the club, how it's always acted and how it has always conducted itself.

"We know we did the right thing. We worked with the Premier League and the FA to make that decision. If anything we've been very honest at least."

Arteta stressed that it was "100 per cent guaranteed" that Arsenal did not have enough players to face Spurs.

Asked if the criticism of the club could be used as a fuel to drive his team, Arteta said: "We will defend our club tooth and nail. We're not going to get anybody damaging our name or trying to spread lies."

Arteta revealed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is back in London and has undergone tests after returning from the Africa Cup of Nations for medical reasons without playing a game.

The Gabon striker had tested positive for COVID-19 on January 6 and was subsequently diagnosed with "heart lesions".

Arteta said: "He's in London and going through some examinations because we haven't had any clarity from Gabon about why he came back.

"So it's our obligation to make sure he's safe and in good condition. So far historically with what we've done with the player that's never been an issue."

Aubameyang has not featured for Arsenal since December 6, having been stripped of the captaincy due to a breach of club rules.

Arsenal and Liverpool played out a goalless draw in the first leg of their EFL Cup tie at Anfield, with Granit Xhaka seeing red in the first half.

Liverpool are proving that they are not just reliant on Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, according to assistant manager Pep Lijnders.

Jurgen Klopp's side are having to do without two of their star attackers, with Salah and Mane on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt and Senegal respectively.

Naby Keita is also featuring at the tournament, with the midfielder a talisman for Guinea, who like Senegal have progressed from Group B. Salah's Egypt will guarantee their qualification from Group D with a win over Sudan on Wednesday.

The tournament runs until February 6. Senegal were runners-up in 2019 while Egypt are the most successful team in AFCON history with seven titles, and both are fancied to go far this time around in Cameroon.

Liverpool have been without the trio since just after a draw with Chelsea on January 2, and though they subsequently beat Shrewsbury Town in the FA Cup, the absence of Mane and the Premier League's leading scorer Salah was particularly felt in a 0-0 draw with 10-man Arsenal at Anfield in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final on January 13.

The Gunners had Granit Xhaka sent off midway through the first half yet Liverpool mustered only one effort on target, with that shot coming in stoppage time, after Takumi Minamino had spurned a glorious chance.

The Reds bounced back with a routine 3-0 win over Brentford on Sunday, with Liverpool having 27 shots (13 on target) and controlling 68 percent of the possession.

Liverpool had 3.1 expected goals against Brentford, the joint-fourth highest total for them in a league game this season, while they have only managed more shots in one top-flight fixture (against Leeds United in September), with their shots-on-target total the most in a single match.

Asked ahead of the second leg against Arsenal how pleased he was with Liverpool's reaction to being without such key players, Lijnders told a news conference: "We did it before. One of the most memorable games [the 4-0 Champions League win over Barcelona in 2019] was without a few of them [Salah and Roberto Firmino].

"When we have our squad, we knew that we needed to have different weapons, create goals from everywhere, dribbles from everywhere, attacks from everywhere, not just based on counter-attacks or the speed of these two boys.

"They are our front line but what I like is we don't just have one weapon, we have so many different ways to attack. How we are evolving as a team, developing with our positional game, it's important and we really like it."

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up on Sunday, scoring Liverpool's second and playing three key passes, second only to Fabinho (four), though the midfielder will not be available against his former club on Thursday due to an ankle injury sustained against Brentford.

"I spoke with him and he feels okay, it's not that bad," Lijnders explained. "He's hoping that he will make the weekend. Tomorrow will be way too soon. We will assess that day by day."

While Liverpool beat Brentford, Arsenal were not in action on Sunday, with the Premier League having granted the Gunners' request to postpone the north London derby clash with Tottenham due to a COVID-19 case within the squad, though injuries and players away at AFCON were also cited as a reason.

"We had our own experience with this, it's really difficult to judge from the outside," said Lijnders, who had to take charge of the Chelsea clash this month when Klopp was self-isolating due to COVID-19.

"We saw that with our situation. I fully respect the submissions because I trust 100 percent the medical department of each Premier League club. I think this is the most important, the trust in these decisions."

Jurgen Klopp saluted the patience and desire demonstrated by Liverpool during their 3-0 win over Brentford.

Goals from Fabinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Takumi Minamino lifted the Reds above Chelsea to reach second place in the Premier League table.

Despite enjoying 74 per cent of possession and registering 12 shots before the break, Klopp's side had to be patient for the breakthrough against stubborn opponents at Anfield.

It arrived just before half-time as Fabinho headed in from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s corner, and they pressed home their advantage after the break with two goals in eight minutes sealing the points.

Klopp was pleased by the way his players were able to adapt to the challenges posed by the Bees.

"It's extremely uncomfortable to play against Brentford, to be honest," Klopp told BBC Sport. "They usually play differently, but the way they play against us is really difficult.

"There were so many moments where the ball was in the air and the moment it was on the ground, we had to start playing football.

"It was not always fluent, but that's how it is very often – the set-pieces can be the opener. That was the case today. We could have scored maybe before, but then the next two goals were outstanding.

"You need patience. You cannot lose focus or get sloppy. You have to stay full of desire even when you don't find direction. We had to switch sides, play it quick and all these kinds of things. We really controlled it in the second half."

Fabinho got the ball rolling with his third goal in as many games, having netted twice in the FA Cup win over Shrewsbury Town last weekend.

"We needed these three points and a good performance, so it was nice to do it in front of our fans," the Brazilian midfielder said. "It will be good to grow our confidence.

"It's always nice to score here at Anfield. When I can help the team in the offensive part of the pitch, it's always important for me as well.

"The team played really well with the ball. We created a lot of opportunities to score. It is a chance for everybody to show their quality and step up. We did that today."

Liverpool moved second in the Premier League with a 3-0 victory over Brentford at Anfield.

These two sides played out a thrilling six-goal draw in the reverse fixture but Sunday's contest was decidedly more one-sided, as Jurgen Klopp's men showed a good reaction to their goalless draw with 10-man Arsenal in the EFL Cup.

Fabinho headed in a first-half opener before Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's first league goal of the season and a tap-in from Takumi Minamino sealed the points in the closing stages.

Virgil van Dijk went closest to breaking the deadlock in the opening half-hour, his attempt following a corner brilliantly turned away from the bottom-right corner by Alvaro Fernandez.

The hosts created little else but gifted Brentford some openings with some slack play at the back, with Ivan Toney shooting narrowly wide after a poor Joel Matip clearance.

An offside flag then intervened in another promising Brentford break, and they were behind three minutes later, Fabinho nodding in at the far post after Trent Alexander-Arnold's inswinging corner had bounced through a crowded box.

Bryan Mbeumo fired just past Alisson's left-hand post at the start of the second half, while at the other end, Diogo Jota smashed a shot off the base of the post and Fernandez smothered Roberto Firmino's rebound.

Fernandez again denied Jota when the Portugal forward burst into the box, but Liverpool's pressure eventually told, Oxlade-Chamberlain diving at the back post to head home Andy Robertson's cross from the left.

Firmino then pounced on Brentford's sluggish attempt to pass out from the back before laying the ball off to Minamino to slot home a birthday goal.

What does it mean? Liverpool looking like Manchester City's sole challengers

City's 1-0 win over Chelsea put them 12 points ahead of the European champions at the top of the table, and Liverpool's win here sent them into second place.

Should they win their game in hand over Pep Guardiola's side, the Reds will cut the gap at the summit to eight points – hardly small, but not beyond their means.

They are now arguably the only side who can mount any sort of threat to City's title bid.

Ox in the box

Deployed in Mohamed Salah's usual position on the right of the attack, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed the kind of efficiency in his play to make the Egypt star proud.

While he had the fewest touches (38) of any starting Liverpool player, he created a joint-high three chances and showed great determination to meet Robertson's cross.

Bees lose their sting

After Liverpool's struggle to break down Arsenal in their previous game, Brentford might have viewed this as a chance to build on their impressive performance in the home fixture.

As it was, they failed to muster an attempt on target until a tame Toney effort in injury time as they slumped to a fourth defeat in five league games.

What's next?

Liverpool face Arsenal in the second leg of the EFL Cup semi-final on Thursday before a league trip to Crystal Palace in a week's time. Brentford have two full days to recover before the visit of Manchester United.

The futures of Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe, arguably the two most sought-after players in world football, could be determined by the end of the January transfer window.

While the forwards look set to stay at Borussia Dortmund and Paris Saint-Germain respectively this month, moves away at the end of the campaign look increasingly likely.

And despite intense competition from fellow heavyweight clubs, Real Madrid are determined to win the race for both players.

 

TOP STORY – MADRID TO PUT ASIDE €350m FOR HAALAND

Madrid had two bids knocked back for Mbappe last year but, according to Marca, they remain in pole position to sign the France international in six months' time.

Landing Haaland could prove to be a little more complicated, though, given he will still have two years to run on his contract at the end of the 2021-22 campaign.

However, the Spanish publication reports that Madrid are willing to spend big on the prolific striker, who is thought to have a €75million release clause in his deal.

On top of triggering that, it is claimed that Los Blancos will have to set aside cash for Haaland's father, agent Mino Raiola and a hefty salary for the player himself, which could total around €350m.

 

ROUND-UP

- Madrid may be considered the frontrunners to sign Mbappe and Haaland, but they already have a back-up plan in place should either of those moves fail to materialise. According to El Nacional, Fiorentina's in-demand Dusan Vlahovic is also on the Spanish giants' radar.

- CalcioMercato reports that Milan have joined the queue to sign Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen. Christensen, who comes out of contract at the end of this season, is being chased by Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.

- Newcastle United could beat Manchester United in the race for RB Leipzig's Amadou Haidara, with The Mirror reporting that the newly-rich Magpies are set to make an offer.

- The Everton board got together on Saturday to discuss manager Rafael Benitez's future in the job, according to Sky Sports. Everton have won one of their past 13 league games and lost to bottom club Norwich City 2-1 on Saturday.

- PSG, Bayern and Madrid are among Kalvin Phillips' suitors. El Nacional reports that Leeds United have a battle on their hands fending off interest in the midfielder, who has been capped 19 times by England.

- The Mirror reports that Chelsea are considering a move for Inter's Ivan Perisic. The Blues are in the market for a versatile player who can play at left-back while Ben Chilwell recovers from a long-term injury.

 

Jurgen Klopp stressed the need for Liverpool's attackers to step up in the absence of Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane, ahead of their Premier League clash with Brentford at Anfield.

With Salah and Mane featuring at the Africa Cup of Nations, Klopp's side struggled to create clear-cut opportunities last time out, in a goalless draw with Arsenal in the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final.

Following a six-game winning run in November and December, Liverpool are also winless in their last three Premier League games, throwing away a lead to draw two of those games.

Speaking ahead of Brentford's first trip to Anfield since March 1989, Klopp praised the contribution of Roberto Firmino, before calling for other players in his Reds squad to step up.

"He [Firmino] is a very smart player", Klopp said in a news conference. "His game is about using his team-mates in the way that he can use them.

"It's not just about being able to score goals in this way or that way.

"In one of our biggest games in recent history we played without Mo [a 7-0 win at Crystal Palace in December 2020, where Salah spent the first hour on the bench], and we won against Manchester United [a 5-0 victory earlier this season] without Mane.

"Now both are out, and that is not cool, but we don't think [of Firmino] 'you have to be like him or like him'". 

Salah and Mane have scored 24 Premier League goals between them this season, on par with their combined expected goals (xG).

Firmino, meanwhile, has only netted four league goals this campaign, with an October hat-trick against Watford representing his only Premier League strikes since the opening day.

Klopp was also asked about the role of versatile youngster Curtis Jones, who made a lively cameo from the bench in Liverpool's frustrating draw with the Gunners, and stressed the need for Jones to show greater consistency. 

"I had a long talk last week with Curtis," Klopp said. "I love the boy, I love the potential he has, but we have to make sure he makes those next steps, and fulfils that potential on the pitch.

"You have these kinds of conversations when you are not 100 per cent happy with a player in that moment. We have to find a way for him to show this [potential] much more often."

Jones provided just one goal and two assists in 24 league appearances last season, featuring regularly as Liverpool battled an injury crisis, and Klopp highlighted the need for the midfielder to contribute in the absence of the side's bigger names.

"It's an ongoing process between Curtis and me. We've had a tricky period, especially with Covid, which is not helpful, but now we'll try to make sure he can show how good he can be," Klopp added.

Pep Guardiola insisted consistency is the only reason for Manchester City's sizeable lead at the Premier League summit, as he hailed the "exceptional" nature of his side and their long-time rivals Liverpool.

City host Chelsea on Saturday as first take on second, though Guardiola's side currently hold a 10-point advantage, with Liverpool 11 behind in third place.

Following their 1-0 win at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, City are looking to secure the Premier League double over Chelsea for the fourth time, previously doing so in 2009-10, 2015-16 and 2017-18.

They have won their last 11 Premier League games, their fifth such run of 11 or more consecutive victories in the competition.

However, despite his team's healthy lead, Guardiola does not believe Chelsea or Liverpool have dropped off. Instead, he credits City with finding another level of consistency.

"The Premier League is the strongest," he told reporters. 

"We are here now because we were consistent, especially in the toughest month in December, when there were many games and how we overcame the tough situations we had in the squad, problems with injuries and COVID.

"We got results playing really good, but also not good, like against Arsenal how we were able to win. We were consistent. This is the reason why, no secrets.

"My opinion about Liverpool and Chelsea does not change one bit. They are more than excellent teams. One is the champion of Europe, the other is the biggest rival in the last two, three, four seasons.

"Football changes quickly. What you have to do is rise and increase a bit our football compared to the last two teams we've played. We'll have to do it tomorrow to compete."

Guardiola then enthused about the continued level of performance of both City and Liverpool, who have had a thrilling rivalry in recent seasons, adding: "I have to say it was because Liverpool and City were exceptional, not because the others were wrong.

"[Manchester] United were close I remember one year with [Jose] Mourinho, and last season, but we were exceptional. What Liverpool and City have done in the last four years has never been seen before in this country.

"Antonio Conte with Chelsea started a little bit in my first season here but after that Liverpool and City made a step, and I think the other opponents did well, Chelsea, United, Tottenham, but Liverpool and City were out of this world.

"I'm proud, after six years together, five years of success, that in January we are competing in every single game. That is an incredible credit to these exceptional players. My job is to put my words behind them, tell them the truth, that's what I need to continue."

Guardiola did, however, hit out at the suggestion City had been fortunate with COVID-19, something which Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk and Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel both claimed.

"It's a situation that's all around the world. We've had injuries, COVID," said Guardiola, who was one of 21 members of City's squad to miss last week's FA Cup win over Swindon Town after testing positive.

"We had a lot of people with COVID. At the beginning of the season we've had a lot of incredibly tough injuries for our players. They believe we were lucky - okay, we were lucky. The thing is the pandemic is all around the world, we are exposed to the virus, we are not the exception.

"If they believe this is the reason why... maybe. Sometimes it's the money we have, sometimes it's COVID."

Saturday's game is just the second between City and Chelsea in the Premier League in which they are the top two teams. The other such match finished 1-1 in 2015.

After beating Liverpool 4-0 in July 2020, and Chelsea 1-0 earlier this season, City are looking to become the fourth English club to win three consecutive meetings with reigning European champions in all competitions, after Notts County (1982), Tottenham Hotspur (1983-84) and Everton (1984-85).

Jurgen Klopp insisted the thought of 350 games as Liverpool manager will not enter his mind when he reaches the landmark in the Reds' clash with Brentford.

Klopp has enjoyed huge success since taking over in 2015, reaching two Champions League finals and winning the tournament in 2019 before guiding Liverpool to their first Premier League title a year later.

However, Liverpool head into Sunday's clash with the Bees 11 points behind league leaders Manchester City and having been held to a 0-0 draw by Arsenal in the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final.

Asked about the prospect of reaching game 350, Klopp told a pre-match media conference: "I'm really happy and proud of the things we have achieved here so far, but I don't think a second about it.

"It's just the next game is really decisive when you are manager at this club. In all competitions, everybody, ourselves involved, expects to win the next game and that's the task.

"But it's fine, we have a great squad, great players and I'm really happy about the time we had here so far and hope to enjoy the next few years.

"These numbers are not important to me, but 350 is a nice one, better than 15 and out."

Winless in their last three Premier League games and without star forwards Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane as they compete in the Africa Cup of Nations, Liverpool saw Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson and James Milner sustain knocks against Arsenal.

However, all three are available to face a Brentford team who held Liverpool to a 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture in London in September.

"As far as I know, no new real injuries," Klopp added. "Knocks last night, Virg, Robbo, Milly, but directly after the game, medical team said all are fine.

"We will see. No 'injuries' so far."

The cup tie with the 10-man Gunners saw Liverpool rack up 78.1 per cent possession and 17 attempts to Arsenal's three, but only one of those efforts hit the target.

Speaking about the absence of Salah and Mane, as well as midfielder Naby Keita, in the aftermath of that stalemate, Klopp said: "Any team would miss Salah, Mane and Keita.

"Could we be prepared for it? I don't think so.

"We've known that already for years. This team was what we had tonight, it can play and score, definitely."

Donny van de Beek has struggled to make much of an impression since his £35million move to Manchester United from Ajax in September 2020.

The Netherlands international was overlooked for regular selection by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and is also a fringe player under interim boss Ralf Rangnick.

But Van de Beek, who previously starred in a talented Ajax side, could be offered a route out of Old Trafford this month.


TOP STORY – DORTMUND, NEWCASTLE IN FOR VAN DE BEEK

Van de Beek is reportedly considering a move away in order to win back his place in the Netherlands side.

According to the Manchester Evening News, Bundesliga heavyweights Dortmund and Premier League strugglers Newcastle United are possible suitors for the midfielder.

However, United will have the final say on any loan deal, which would not be expected to contain an option to make the deal permanent at the end of the campaign.

The 24-year-old has featured 49 times for the Red Devils – just 19 of those being starts – since arriving at the club 16 months ago.


ROUND-UP

– Barcelona will make one final effort to sign Alvaro Morata this month, according to Sport. Memphis Depay could be used as part of any deal.

– Liverpool want to sign Jarrod Bowen and the West Ham forward is keen on the move, says Football Insider. It will not be in January, though.

– Desperate for a replacement for Kieran Trippier, Atletico Madrid are interested in Manchester United's Diogo Dalot, according to AS.

– Tuttomercatoweb says Arthur is keen on the idea of joining Arsenal on loan, but Juventus and Massimiliano Allegri have yet to okay any departure.

– Meanwhile, TMW also claims Paulo Dybala is not yet prepared to listen to offers from other clubs, with a contract summit with Juventus set for February.

– The Daily Mail reports that Arsenal are frontrunners to sign Youri Tielemans after Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers admitted the midfielder may leave the club.

Jurgen Klopp does not believe there is any team that would not miss Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, after Liverpool felt the duo's absence against Arsenal.

Salah and Mane, along with midfielder Naby Keita, are on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations.

Mane scored a last-gasp winner on Monday for Senegal against Zimbabwe, and he and Guinea's Keita go head-to-head when their nations face off on Friday.

Salah, meanwhile, was kept quiet as Egypt slipped to a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in their opening group game. The forward, who has netted 23 times across all competitions this season for Liverpool, had just four touches in the opposition box and managed just one attempt, which did hit the target, in Monday's game.

Klopp would have loved to have the star duo at his disposal on Thursday, however, as Liverpool were frustrated by 10-man Arsenal in the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final at Anfield.

Granit Xhaka's dismissal midway through the first half resulted in Mikel Arteta switching to an incredibly compact 5-3-1 system, which Liverpool were unable to break down.

The Reds had 78.1 per cent of the ball and 17 attempts to Arsenal's three, though only one of them – a stoppage-time effort from Curtis Jones – troubled Aaron Ramsdale.

Arsenal's goalkeeper had gifted Takumi Minamino a golden opportunity in the 90th minute, but the Japan international, who had a game-leading six attempts, failed to keep his shot down with the goal gaping. The chance was Liverpool's best of the game, according to Opta, with an expected goals (xG) value of 0.384.

 

Asked in a post-match news conference if Liverpool could have been better prepared for the absences of key players, Klopp replied: "Any team would miss Salah, Mane and Keita.

"Could we be prepared for it? I don't think so.

"We've known that already for years. This team was what we had tonight, it can play and score, definitely."

The Anfield leg of the semi-final had originally been set to be the second fixture, but a COVID-19 outbreak at Liverpool saw last week's game at Emirates Stadium postponed.

Klopp will now take his side down to north London next week knowing it is winner takes all for a place in the final against Chelsea.

"We weren't creative enough. We didn't do some things well enough but in the end it's 0-0, half-time [in the tie]," he said.

"We don't think this tie is over for us. We will give it a proper try next Thursday."

Should they progress to a Wembley showdown with Chelsea, Liverpool – who face Brentford in the Premier League on Sunday – will be bidding to win the EFL Cup for a record ninth time.

Mikel Arteta lauded the spirit of his Arsenal side after the Gunners battled to a goalless draw against Liverpool at Anfield.

Granit Xhaka was sent off midway through the first half in the first leg of the EFL Cup semi-final on Thursday, having lunged in high on Diogo Jota.

It is the fifth time Xhaka has been sent off since he made his Arsenal debut in 2016-17, more than any other Premier League player in that time.

Yet without key men Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah, who are with Senegal and Egypt respectively at the Africa Cup of Nations, Liverpool faltered in front of goal and failed to make their numerical advantage count.

Curtis Jones' stoppage-time effort was the Reds' only shot on target, with that attempt coming after Aaron Ramsdale had gifted Takumi Minamino (who had six attempts in total) a golden chance, only for the Japan forward to blaze it high over a gaping goal.

Based on Opta's expected goals (xG) model, Minamino's chance was the second best opportunity of the match – an xG value of 0.384 (a 38.4 per cent likelihood of scoring) – though Bukayo Saka had the best sighting of goal when his close-range effort (0.402 xG) was smothered by Alisson.

 

Arsenal, who were without regulars Emile Smith Rowe, Martin Odegaard, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Thomas Partey, now head into next week's second leg on level pegging, with a place in the final against Chelsea on the line at Emirates Stadium.

"They showed great fight, determination, attitude, brotherhood," Arteta told Sky Sports.

"You could see the determination with which they were playing, they never gave up, it's extremely difficult in this situation against this opponent. Great credit to the boys.

"I don't know if it [the sending off] inspired them, but they certainly took the fight and I said to them before the game that you have to have a certain attitude to play in this ground, in difficult moments you have to act, you cannot be reactive because then it gets really complicated and I think the boys adapted really well in certain moments.

"We played the game that we had to play, not the game we wanted to play but the game we had to."

Arsenal performed well against Manchester City on New Year's Day, only to go down to Rodri's late winner in a game in which the Gunners were again reduced to 10 men – Gabriel Magalhaes sent off on that occasion. Since Arteta took charge in December 2019, his side have received 13 red cards in all competitions, five more than any other Premier League side in this period. 

The Gunners then slumped out of the FA Cup on Sunday, losing to Championship side Nottingham Forest 1-0, but Arteta suggested inconsistency was merely a symptom of a largely inexperienced side.

He said: "It's really difficult to explain, you see the performance against City where we probably deserved more, we played with 10 men then we play Forest and it was completely different.

"Today we got the level back and did what we had to do. It's an extremely young team, sometimes that inconsistency is going to happen."

Arsenal have now avoided defeat in four of their last eight away games in which they have been shown a red card in all competitions, though injuries to Bukayo Saka and Cedric Soares further complicated matters ahead of Sunday's north London derby clash with Tottenham.

"The motivation to play a derby brings the energy when you don’t have it, no excuses we're going to play the game now in the best possible way," Arteta added.

 

Takumi Minamino squandered a golden chance for Liverpool as 10-man Arsenal defended resolutely despite to draw 0-0 draw in the first leg of their EFL Cup semi-final.

The Anfield fixture had initially been scheduled as the second leg, but last week's match was postponed due to a number of coronavirus cases within Liverpool's squad.

Arsenal were thrashed 4-0 in their previous trip to the ground in November but a depleted Gunners side ensured the second leg will start on level terms following a stoic display, which was complicated by Granit Xhaka's 24th-minute red card.

Missing Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane due to the Africa Cup of Nations, Liverpool toiled in front of a packed Arsenal defence and when a golden chance did finally come, Minamino fluffed his lines.

Already shorn of the injured Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard, who had tested positive for COVID-19, Arsenal were dealt another blow when Cedric Soares limped off in the 11th minute.

The visitors would surely have been behind if not for Ben White's intervention, with the defender just managing to deny Roberto Firmino a tap-in.

Though they weathered an early storm, Arsenal's task was made harder when Xhaka received his marching orders for a desperate, high swipe at Diogo Jota just outside the Gunners' area.

Minamino, Liverpool's hero from the quarter-final win over Leicester City, almost caught out Aaron Ramsdale early in the second half with a long-range cross-shot that dropped just wide.

Alisson had to be alert to thwart Bukayo Saka at the other end in a rare Arsenal attack, but Minamino should have won it late on.

Ramsdale flapped at a cross and left his goal gaping, yet Minamino's first-time effort flew high over the crossbar.

What does it mean? Reds attack blunted

Liverpool are not the only team dealing with the loss of key players due to AFCON – Arsenal were missing midfielder Thomas Partey – but without Salah and Mane, Jurgen Klopp's side lacked the cutting edge to turn their dominance into goals, whose only shot on target came in stoppage time.

Mikel Arteta will have been thrilled with the grit his depleted team showed throughout, and will now be looking to make home advantage count in the second leg, though he will be without Xhaka, while Saka joined Cedric in trudging off with an injury issue late on.

White takes charge

With Arsenal going to a back five following Xhaka's dismissal, White proved a commanding figure at the back, having by that point already denied Liverpool a certain opener.

The England international made three tackles, three blocks and as many interceptions, all team-highs, while he also contributed five clearances, including one just in front of the line in injury time.

New year, same old Xhaka

Oh, Granit, it was all so predictable. The Arsenal midfielder was beaten for pace by Jota, who latched onto Andrew Robertson's brilliant diagonal, and in a desperate bid to deny the Liverpool forward a one-v-one with Ramsdale, he lashed out and caught the Portugal international in the stomach.

Xhaka, who had just nine touches in his 24 minutes on the pitch, has now been sent off five times in all competitions since his Arsenal debut in 2016-17. That number may seem surprisingly low, given his tendency to dive in rashly, but it is still more than any other Premier League player.

What's next?

Both teams are back in Premier League action on Sunday, with Liverpool hosting Brentford and Arsenal taking on north London rivals Tottenham prior to next week's second leg.

Arsenal midfielder Martin Odegaard missed their EFL Cup semi-final first leg against Liverpool and will likely sit out the north London derby after testing positive for COVID-19.

Odegaard will be sidelined for Sunday's clash with Spurs having returned a positive test shortly before the Gunners' game at Anfield on Thursday.

He is the latest member of Arsenal's playing and coaching staff to test positive for COVID-19, with Mikel Arteta also doing so last month.

The Gunners boss subsequently missed his side's 2-1 defeat by Manchester City at Emirates Stadium on New Year's Day, with assistant Albert Stuivenberg taking temporary charge.

Since arriving from Real Madrid on a permanent deal, Odegaard has played 18 times in the Premier League, with only Bukayo Saka (20) appearing more often for the Gunners.

Meanwhile, Emile Smith Rowe (eight) and Saka (six) are the only two Arsenal players to better the Norway captain's tally of four goals in the English top flight.

There is nothing quite like an individual football award to create debate and there is sure to be plenty when one of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah is named this year's men's FIFA Best winner on January 17.

While team trophies will always be the end game for most players, the few who are good enough to be in contention for individual accolades put such importance on being recognised that they have been known to move clubs specifically to improve their chances of collecting silverware in a tuxedo rather than just in a dirty kit. Neymar, anyone?

The Ballon d'Or is broadly seen as football's version of the Oscars, but the annual FIFA Best award is also becoming one of the more sought-after honours and the latest men and women's winners will be crowned on Monday at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich.

The awards will be decided by an international jury comprising national team coaches and captains, a selected journalist from each territory represented by a national side, and fans registered with FIFA's website.

Stats Perform has taken a look at the data of the three nominees for the men's prize to try and decipher who is likeliest to come away with the prize.

The Best... at scoring goals

It is a harsh truth that scoring goals will almost always win over stopping them when it comes to the top awards, so it makes sense that Messi, Lewandowski and Salah are the nominees for this year.

The trio scored 129 goals between them in 145 collective games across 2021, which includes 21 overall in this season's Champions League group stage, over seven per cent of the total amount scored in the competition (297).

However, there is no doubt which of the star trio stood out for finding the net time and time again.

Lewandowski, last year's winner, was frankly ridiculous in front of goal, netting 43 in the Bundesliga in a calendar year, breaking Gerd Muller's record from 1972, and 58 in all competitions in just 47 outings.

Salah had a mixed year at Liverpool, with the Reds' poor form at the start of 2021 almost costing them a place in the Premier League's top four. However, thanks in part to the Egypt forwards' 15 goals in 28 games between the turn of the year and end of the campaign, Liverpool reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League and finished third in the league, ahead of European champions Chelsea.

His nomination is mostly down to his form in the second half of the year, though, with Salah scoring 22 goals in 25 games in all competitions. He scored 37 times in all competitions in 2021, at least 15 more than any other Premier League player, and is top of the scoring charts for 2021-22 in England's top flight with 16, well ahead of team-mate Diogo Jota in second place on 10.

For Messi, it is probably the other way round. The legendary Argentine has managed only six goals in 16 appearances since his sensational move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain at the end of last season.

However, his 28 goals in 29 games for Barca between New Year's Day and his emotional departure was Messi at his effervescent best, even if the rest of the team was lagging behind him, and he followed that up with four at the Copa America for Argentina.

Consistency and underlying numbers

While it has been mostly impressive from all three, Lewandowski's consistency puts him above the other two, with a 55.17 big chance conversion percentage across 2021, compared to Messi's 45.95 and Salah's 45.90, and an overall shot conversion rate of 28.02 against Salah's 19.37 and Messi's 15.74.

Unsurprisingly, this also led to a significantly better minutes per goal rate, with Lewandowski averaging a goal roughly every 68 minutes, while Messi bagged one every 116 minutes and Salah every 122 minutes.

While all three scored plenty of penalties that could potentially skew the numbers, Lewandowski again dominated in expected goals (xG) without spot kicks, with a 2021 xG excluding penalties of 43.86, compared with Salah's 29.6 and Messi's 24.37.

Not all scorers have to be selfish

Of course, while goals make the headlines, someone has to create them or nothing will happen. This is where Salah and Messi start to claw it back.

Lewandowski managed seven assists in 2021 in all competitions and created 61 chances for team-mates. Quite respectable for any number nine.

However, despite a perhaps unfair reputation for being "selfish", Salah recorded 11 assists and created 88 chances, while Messi had 13 assists to his name and created exactly 100 opportunities.

In terms of big chances (which Opta define as an opportunity from which a player would be expected to score), it is a bit closer, with Lewandowski crafting 16, Salah 18 and Messi 24, though with the Pole usually playing higher up the pitch it makes sense that the opportunities he creates would come in a dangerous area.

Show us your medals

While it is not entirely without merit, it does seem a bit counter-intuitive to base how much credit an individual player deserves on what his team has achieved. There are plenty of world-class players who did not always play in teams capable of winning much silverware, just like there have been numerous average players who were simply members of squads that won a lot, whether they had much to do with it or not.

It usually comes into consideration when the big awards are handed out though and is likely the ultimate reason that Messi pipped Lewandowski to last year's Ballon d'Or.

Messi helped Barcelona win the Copa del Rey last season and then inspired Argentina to glory at the Copa America, with his nine direct goal involvements helping them to win the trophy for the first time since 1993.

Lewandowski, on the other hand, had less success at Euro 2020, with Poland crashing out at the group stage of the re-arranged tournament. He still managed to score three goals in as many games for his country, but was unable to force them into the knockout stages.

He did win the Bundesliga title again with Bayern, but after claiming a remarkable treble the year before, it may rather harshly look like a bit of a regression.

Unfortunately for Salah, this is probably where his chance to finish above the other two falls down, as arguably proven by his astonishingly low seventh place in the Ballon d'Or voting.

The 29-year-old did not have an opportunity for national team success in 2021, and he is currently aiming to help Egypt recover from an opening game defeat to Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon, but he also did not win any trophies at club level.

It is possibly a bit too early for Salah, but his form has been electric this season and if he can continue it through the rest of the campaign, ideally for Liverpool collecting a trophy or two along the way, he will certainly be in the conversation for next year's honours.

The question will be the same as it was for the Ballon d'Or; will those with voting power be more impressed by Lewandowski's goalscoring exploits, or by Messi's final six months at Barca followed by a successful Copa America, or could Salah's explosive form in the second half of the year see him sneak it?

Whatever the outcome, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the trio are not currently the three best footballers on the planet, though if you take a look on social media when the winner is announced, you'll find plenty of people willing to try.

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