Special Liverpool win underlines the problems facing Chelsea

Special Liverpool win underlines the problems facing Chelsea

Jurgen Klopp described this as “easily the most special trophy” he had ever won, while Mauricio Pochettino was left wondering out loud if he was running out of time to win silverware of his own.

The Carabao Cup is typically the fourth most prestigious trophy on offer to Liverpool and Chelsea, but the contrast between the two managers after Sunday’s final was striking, and spoke to the significance of the occasion.

Klopp’s Chesire cat grin has rarely been wider, but Pochettino looked close to the edge.

For Klopp, the circumstances of Liverpool’s 1-0 win, sealed by captain Virgil van Dijk’s 118th-minute header deep into extra-time, made this an incomparable and unique triumph.

“What we see here today is so exceptional, we might never see [the like] again,” he said. “These things don’t happen in football.”

Already missing Trent-Alexander Arnold, Mohamed Salah, Dominik Szoboszlai and Darwin Nunez to injury, Klopp introduced Jayden Danns, 18, James McConnell, Bobby Clark, both 19, and Jarell Quansah, 21, in the second half to join 20-year-old starter Harvey Elliott on the pitch. Conor Bradley, 20, also started.

If the Liverpool manager had used the XI which finished the match — also including Kostas Tsimikas and reserve goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who was outstanding — in the early rounds of this competition, he would have been lambasted for not taking the Carabao Cup seriously.

Special: Klopp hailed the Carabao Cup win as one of his best (REUTERS)
Special: Klopp hailed the Carabao Cup win as one of his best (REUTERS)

And, yet, his side deservedly prevailed, the irrepressible Van Dijk refusing to be denied, despite his first goal, also a commanding header from a set-piece, being controversially chalked off after Wataru Endo blocked a Chelsea player in an offside position.

Chelsea, who also had a Raheem Sterling goal ruled out by the VAR, were still the younger side on average from the off and at the start of extra-time, as Pochettino pointed out afterwards, but in reality there was no comparing the teams or their approaches.

Chelsea were young by design and Liverpool out of necessity, while the Blues’ squad was several hundreds of millions of pounds more expensive.

Pochettino’s youngsters included 20-year-old Malo Gusto, a £30million signing, Moises Caicedo, 22, who opted for Chelsea over Liverpool in a £110m summer deal, and Nicolas Jackson, 22, another £30m purchase.

Their three attacking substitutes, Mykhailo Mudryk, Christopher Nkunku and Noni Madueke, cost a combined £171.5m but made no impact whatsoever, with Pochettino afterwards admitting his charges were playing for penalties, despite Liverpool’s depleted and youthful XI.

For all Pochettino’s talk about “time” and Klopp’s “project”, there was little excuse for Chelsea losing to this Liverpool team as they did.

Klopp’s cast of youngsters, however, were impressively unawed by the occasion or the added pressure of competing in what may be the German’s last final for the club and final appearance at Wembley. They took the game to Chelsea in extra-time, playing with remarkable ambition in the circumstances.

Chelsea could not find a way past a heavily-rotated Liverpool side (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Chelsea could not find a way past a heavily-rotated Liverpool side (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

Bradley moved from right-back into the Salah role after Ryan Gravenberch was forced off injured after 28 minutes, and menaced Chelsea captain Ben Chilwell; McConnell and Clark were everywhere in the midfield; Danns nearly scored twice, including with a header which Djordje Petrovic did well to fingertip over the bar.

“Klopp’s kids against the blue billion-pound bottlejobs,” said Gary Neville on commentary for Sky Sports, in a line which threatens to immortalise this Chelsea side, and which Pochettino afterwards described as “unfair”.

Really, there was a delicious irony that Liverpool won with kids against the club which has made selling off academy players a key part of its business model.

Liverpool understand as well as any club the value of the link with the academy and, by extension, the fanbase and local community. Chelsea seemingly no longer do.

As the Blues’ co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali watched on, Chelsea’s best player was academy graduate Conor Gallagher, who three times went close to opening the scoring in the second half, but the 24-year-old remains likely to be sold in the summer to balance the books.

Afterwards, the nine Liverpool academy players who were part of the squad were joined by Alexander-Arnold for a photo with their winners’ medals in an image which may go down in history if enough of them remain at Anfield and fulfil their obvious potential.

Chelsea were once this club, winning the Champions League in 2020 with five academy players in the matchday squad, and Pochettino was once this manager, the 51-year-old bringing through a host of youngsters at Southampton and Tottenham, including Harry Kane.

Now, as Liverpool look to a bright future post-Klopp, his legacy assured by this shining new generation, the next steps for Chelsea and their manager are again clouded in uncertainty.

In the immediate term, they must beat Leeds at home in the FA Cup on Wednesday to ensure their season is not over by spring for a second year running, with Pochettino conscious that opportunities like yesterday may not keep coming round.

“I am so disappointed, it is so painful,” he said. “I am an older guy that has less time to win titles, [the players] are younger than me and, for sure, they have time. But if we want to win, we have to move on.”