When tonight’s Carabao Cup semi-final first leg between Liverpool and Arsenal was due to take place last week, there was a spring in the step of Mikel Arteta and those at the London club.
Seven days later, they go into the contest attempting to recover from a costly stumble that has revived questions about the team and their progress under manager Arteta.
It has been a familiar pattern for Arsenal under the Spaniard: encouraging signs of improvement followed by wretched displays that burst their bubble.
Ahead of what could prove to be a defining eight days in the north London club’s season, it is tempting to ask: will Arteta’s real Arsenal stand up?
“Obviously we were all extremely disappointed and upset after the game,” Arteta said.
“We analysed what happened, we discussed it, we talked about it and hopefully learned from it.
After that you have to throw it in the bin, take the lesson and move on because the game we have ahead of us is too important.”
Despite a dreadful start of three successive defeats and some worrying fluctuations, this has been a season of improvement under the rookie manager.
With most of the players he has looked to offload since taking charge now gone, Arteta has shaped a largely new XI built on a strong back five and fluid, youthful attack.
It has, largely, worked. Arsenal have beaten the teams below them in the Premier League consistently enough to climb into the top four, exceeding expectations.
Last time out in the top flight they broke their habit of capitulating against good sides, giving leaders Manchester City a run for their money before succumbing in the 93rd minute.
Cup exit exposed Arsenal’s shallow squad
What Sunday’s chastening FA Cup exit at second-tier Nottingham Forest exposed was the yawning gap in quality between Arteta’s first XI and most of his reserves.
Bernd Leno looked a busted flush, Rob Holding and Cedric Soares were second rate, and Eddie Nketiah, for all his glowing cameos, was not up to shouldering the goalscoring burden.
The biggest hole is in central midfield, however, especially with Thomas Partey and Mohamed Elneny away at the Africa Cup of Nations and Granit Xhaka out with Covid-19. Arteta said Xhaka remained a doubt for tonight’s game.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has been allowed to join Roma on loan, while summer signing Albert Sambi Lokonga has been the least convincing of the new recruits.
Liverpool, meanwhile, can pick from Fabinho, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Curtis Jones.
“It is extremely volatile and uncertain,” said Arteta when asked which of his players would be fit. “In the last week or so we lost so many players for many different reasons and we are trying to adapt to that. I will use the players that we have and make the most out of it.”
Arsenal’s best hope, perhaps, is that Jurgen Klopp continues to treat domestic cup competitions as inconveniences and fields a much-weakened line-up.
Now out of the FA Cup and not having qualified for European competition, Arteta must navigate this two-legged tie, which concludes next week, to retain any hope of lifting a trophy this term.
With a north London derby at Tottenham Hotspur which could have major ramifications for both team’s top-four chances sandwiched in between, this week is also an opportunity to prove that Arsenal are indeed on the right track and capable of putting their latest setback behind them.