The absence of domestic cups is a rare blemish on Jurgen Klopp’s CV – it could be put right in proper fashion this year.
It was comfortable enough for Liverpool in the end, although a goalless first half against Cardiff inevitably led to fears of a Manchester United-style disaster or at the very least a Chelsea-West Ham-style stress.
Three second-half goals from Diogo Jota, Takumi Minamino and, most pleasingly, the returning Harvey Elliott put any such concern to bed, though, meaning the whole ground could simply enjoy the sight of another teenage substitute, Rubin Colwill, lash home the final goal of the game for the visitors.
With no cupset to feast upon today, it was left to the nature of Liverpool’s goals to provide the narrative. With Jota’s precise header breaking the deadlock and Minamino taking advantage of a Cardiff defensive snafu pounced upon by new boy Luis Diaz before Elliott went spinning in the rain to ping one into the bottom corner and you’ve got your talking point: the evolution of the Liverpool attack. Taking a fantastically successful element of a team and slowly, carefully, methodically moving it forward to the next era is a fiendishly difficult trick to pull off. You only have to look at the Vieira, Carrick and Dembele-shaped holes that remain in the midfields of Arsenal, Manchester United and Spurs to see that.
The significance of Elliott’s dislocated ankle back in September probably wasn’t fully understood outside Liverpool. Beyond the sympathy for a promising 18-year-old suffering so serious an injury, its potential impact on Liverpool’s season was perhaps underplayed. He might only be 18, but his emergence was a key factor in Liverpool’s decision to stick rather than twist in the summer transfer window. Now he is back and, thanks to Spurs negotiating Porto down to an acceptable fee, Luis Diaz is here with him. The roar that greeted their double introduction from the subs’ bench was quite something, a heady mix of the two loudest and warmest possible of all substitute welcomes: the new guy, and the crowd favourite returning from long-term injury.
With the remarkable Jota already on the field and on the scoresheet there seems no escaping the fact that Liverpool’s attack is in good hands. They can already cope without Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino – by far the least convincing attacker on display for Liverpool today – is already a squad player. Mo Salah might take a bit more replacing, but you’d not bet against Liverpool pulling it off would you?
They are a remarkably consistent force in the transfer market, and the canny Daniel Levy-infuriating manoeuvring behind the Diaz deal showed just how smart they are at this. A 25-minute cameo against Cardiff is no basis on which to judge, but we’re going to do it anyway because he was both fun and tremendous. Tremendously fun. The sight of him clutching his knee in pain was by far the most worrying moment of the game for Liverpool and the relief when it turned out to be nothing more serious than a rogue stud to the joint rather than some internal mangling within it was palpable.
Last January’s understandable if panicked mistakes trying to patch up the absurdly depleted defence are easily written off as an accident of circumstance and stand out so keenly because they are so atypical of this Liverpool set-up in the transfer window. Other teams make those sort of mistakes all the time with or without an injury list from hell to prompt it.
A meaningful title challenge still looks unlikely this season but says far more about Manchester City than it does Liverpool, a team that continue to do most things right and are absolutely in the hunt for three other pieces of silverware. They are favourites for the Carabao final against Chelsea, third favourites for the Champions League and now, a win over Norwich away from a place in the last eight, second favourites too for the FA Cup. In a way, it might be the tournament Liverpool would most like to win given the choice. It is an absurd 16 years since that absurd win over West Ham and a nonsense that Liverpool have been to just one final and one semi-final since then given they are quite a good football team.
Jurgen Klopp’s record in domestic cups is the one minor blemish on his Liverpool record and there really does appear a fine chance to put that to bed with a double flourish even if City’s excellence does make the title a step too far for a team that, for all its excellence, is actually in transition.