It’s the trophy no-one wants to win. Or rather, the trophy no-one wants to win until it looks like you might actually win it. It is the ugly step-child of the competitions available to each club, a midweek nuisance which contributes to unwanted fixture congestion. What kind of worthwhile tournament concludes in February? Be it Capital One, Carling, Worthington or Coca-Cola, modern-day football has mutilated the reputation of the League Cup, reducing it to little more than a sideshow.
That is the conventional wisdom surrounding England’s tertiary competition. The Capital One Cup is seen as the domestic version of the Europa League by some. And no-one likes the Europa League. Not even the Europa League’s mother.
Games like Liverpool’s victory over Stoke dispel such a myth. The Capital One Cup matters. It mattered to Stoke, and it still matters to Liverpool. It mattered to those delirious Potters fans celebrating Marko Arnautovic’s goal to level the tie. It matters to Mamadou Sakho, who embarked on a one-man mission to block every shot from the visiting side in the second half. It matters to Jurgen Klopp, who replaced a midfielder with a striker with 40 minutes of normal time still to play, and then a defender with a midfielder in search of a goal. It matters to Joe Allen, whose unlikely renaissance in a red shirt continues with a tie-winning penalty. After a fairly pedestrian first half both on the pitch and in the stands, this became the modern Liverpool’s equivalent of a ‘typical European night at Anfield’. Every player cared, both managers cared, and fans from each club cared.
For Liverpool and Klopp, a Capital One Cup final matters more than usual. A place in the Wembley showpiece at the end of February represents progress, an opportunity for the club to win its first silverware for four years. Klopp can achieve what two of his three most recent predecessors failed to do: win a trophy. And he’s only been at the club for three-and-a-half months.
In this most tumultuous of seasons at Anfield, Klopp has been anointed as the saviour, denounced as a glasses-wearing madcap, compared favourably and unfavourably to Sir Brendan of Rodgers, and provided enough soundbites to last a lifetime. But as memorable as victories over Chelsea, Manchester City and the 5-4 win over Norwich are, there has been little in the way of lasting tangibles. When the German was appointed in October, the Reds were 10th, three points behind the Champions League spots, and with two defeats to their name in eight games. Fifteen matches later, they are three places higher, eight points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, and have been beaten a further five times. Be it an all-Merseyside final or another clash with City, the League Cup final in a month’s time provides a chance to deliver something palpable, something substantial, something concrete. Not a runners-up medal, but an actual, physical, bonafide trophy.
The starting line-up from the hosts said enough. One enforced change, Jon Flanagan coming in for the injured Nathaniel Clyne, and one tactical, with Adam Lallana replacing Jordon Ibe. Adam Bogdan and Danny Ings were among the starters against League Two Carlisle in the third round, with Emre Can in central defence. While the previous manager prioritised other competitions, Klopp knows only too well the importance of this one in this season.
“Reaching a final is great but in the end it is only memorable if you win it and that’s what we have to do,” the manager said before the semi-final second leg. “It is football and you should not waste opportunities of winning something.” And Klopp is right. Why should Liverpool value their ever-decreasing chances of Champions League qualification over winning a domestic trophy? The manager has instilled a refreshing mindset at the club, and is likely to treat both the Europa League and the FA Cup with the same respect. It could yet be a memorable season.
It was certainly not a classic at Anfield, at least not a conventional one. Both keepers faced one shot on target each in 90 minutes, with Simon Mignolet continuing his run of conceding the first attempt he faces in any given match. Liverpool’s defence looked shaky against a bright Stoke attack, but it was a marked improvement from the four goals conceded to Norwich, particularly from corners. The midfield was sloppy in possession once more, but did not lack bite. And creativity in attack was lacking after the brief – and ridiculous – respite at Carrow Road. I discussed Liverpool’s need for Alex Teixeira on Saturday, and while a lack of goals remains a problem that the Brazilian could solve, there are far bigger issues across each area of the pitch for Klopp. But the manager will be wary of unnecessarily dampenening lifted spirits.
“Please give us time to do the work but when I sit here in four years I think we may have one title,” said Klopp upon his unveiling as boss back in October. Setting mistranslations – wilful or otherwise – aside, the German was not discussing the Premier League title, just trophies. Never mind four years, it could take him just four months to achieve that.
Some rival fans will remain unconvinced by such celebrations over reaching a League Cup final; they didn’t fancy her anyway. Never did. Never will. Unless they win it. Liverpool and Klopp have earned the chance to do exactly that next month, and they will rightfully relish such an opportunity.