For an entire generation of Arsenal supporters wet Wednesday nights in early spring such as these were always about European football.
In its own way, so was this. Elite opponents, from the Champions League set. They were playing for Premier League points but one thing was uppermost in the minds of the home supporters.
Just as this fixture represented a glorious opportunity for Liverpool’s title bid it was vital for Arsenal, too, as Mikel Arteta’s young and improving team sought to measure themselves against Europe’s elite.
Arsenal’s 2-0 defeat to Liverpool was a test to measure themselves against Europe’s elite
There were signs of encouragement from Mikel Arteta’s young Gunners, although they remain some distance behind the Reds
There were signs of encouragement even if, ultimately, it would be eclipsed by confirmation of what they already knew.
They remain a good distance from this level. Unable to score a goal against Liverpool in four games this season.
Arteta was unable to do a favour for his old boss Pep Guardiola and there is work to do if they are to end their five-year absence from the Champions League. And most of it must be done away from the Emirates Stadium.
Seven of Arsenal’s remaining 11 games are away from the Emirates Stadium. They must travel to derbies against Tottenham, Chelsea and West Ham. The quest continues at Aston Villa on Saturday.
Boss Mikel Arteta (pictured) was unable to do a favour for his old boss Pep Guardiola of Manchester City
A top four finish would bring not only tangible reward for improvement this season but a helpful financial boost, delivering added clout in the summer transfer market at a time when Chelsea are in limbo.
‘If we could qualify for the Champions League I think that would bring a lot of pride to the fans, as well as a good experience for the team,’ said captain Alexandre Lacazette.
‘Being in the Champions League would bring a lot of confidence and quality to each player, so we know how important it is to be there.’
Qualification may yet play a part in Lacazette’s future. The 30-year-old is out of contract in June and yet to agree a new deal but his contribution has rarely been as impressive as in recent weeks.
Champions League qualification could play a part in Alexandre Lacazette’s future at the Emirates Stadium
Not purely in terms of goals because he would surely like more across the season, rather as the focal point of Arsenal’s attacking unit, strong enough to hold the ball against Virgil van Dijk, the best central defender in the Premier League and with the awareness to link up with the exciting young players who flicker around him.
His leadership has shone since inheriting the captaincy from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
He is popular and a positive influence on the young players in the dressing room and shares his wisdom on and off the pitch.
This wasn’t his night but home fans stood to applaud his effort when he was replaced by Eddie Nketiah with 10 minutes to play.
It wasn’t Lacazette’s night, but fans applauded the Frenchman as he was replaced by Eddie Nketiah (pictured)
A return to the Champions League will hold the key to extending Lacazette’s stay in North London, releasing funds for Arsenal to make a more attractive offer as well as providing him with a return to elite competition.
Arteta has designs on a new centre forward, a young model, probably one who scores more goals, but there can still be an important role for him. Experience in the ranks will be vital if they are to push on from here.
Look no further than Liverpool and the importance of Jordan Henderson and James Milner, or Fernandinho’s influence deep into this 30s at Manchester City.
Lacazette is a key experienced figure just like Jordan Henderson (pictured) is for Liverpool
Arsenal’s early promise came from pace out wide, particularly through Gabriel Martinelli on the left.
But they found it difficult to create anything meaningful until Martinelli flashed an effort narrowly wide when already two goals down.
When presented with an unexpected chance by Thiago Alcantara’s carelessness in defence, early in the second half, Martin Odegaard could not find a way past Alisson.
The missed opportunity would sting when Diogo Jota beat Aaron Ramsdale at his near post, a rare mistake by the England goalkeeper, and the visitors tightened their grip. It is the instinct of champions only acquired over time at the top.
Diogo Jota beat Aaron Ramsald at his near post, a rare mistake by the England goalkeeper
On came Mo Salah and the second goal soon followed. In the not too distant past, this would have been the cue for the mood to turn inside the Emirates but they stood and cheered their team.
It must have warmed Arteta. They are finally behind him and answering the call for unity because they sense he is onto a good thing and they know this young team will require encouragement to fulfil its potential.
Not yet a match for Liverpool. Still waiting for that statement win. In truth, maybe not quite ready for the Champions League but getting closer, very much in the scramble despite defeat.