In the days before the utter magnitude of the Champions League, going to Wembley for a cup final was often the highlight of the season. Billions of UEFA Euros later that simple tradition has been largely diminished, but the thrill of a day out in London still generates a special twinkle in the eye.
That fact was spelled out strongly in the semifinals of this year’s Carabao Cup when all four participants held back little in team selection, unlike the significant squad rotation that goes on in early rounds. Both Chelsea and Liverpool want this! The Europa Conference berth at stake is irrelevant, and the £100,000 prize money (the runners-up receive £50,000) is insignificant. But the pride and bragging rights have a value that can’t be easily quantified.
As a result, we expect to see a strong side, regardless of the fact that Caoimhin Kelleher has already been given the nod to start in goal. Kelleher has been the starter in four of the other five games in the tournament this season, including as the hero in the penalty shoot-out against Leicester City.
Before Liverpool get to Wembley there is a little matter of facing Leeds United in the Premier League which Liverpool will want to win with the Premier League race still very much alive, while Chelsea’s midweek distraction comes in the form of Champions League action.
The Reds have picked up some important additions since the last meeting with Chelsea over the holiday period. Harvey Elliott is back with a bang and offers Klopp a more developed midfield option than the one who faced the Blues back in August, while new signing Luis Diaz has apparently needed no bedding in time and opened his scoring account for the club against Norwich City.
Liverpool needs to be thankful to the gods for the timing in which Diaz arrived! Originally slated as a summer signing the timeline was pushed forward when Porto needed a quick, cut-price sale after a surprise Champions League exit! Meanwhile, Spurs interest forced Liverpool’s hand in getting the deal done in January.
The timing has proved crucial! Undefined injuries to both Firmino and Jota, (Klopp’s team never tells you the real story) have left the club’s forward line depleted but Diaz has already shown he’s ready to provide a spark and another dimension to the Liverpool attack.
Indeed for the first time in Klopp’s reign, the club has serious depth. Five world-class forwards not counting Origi who just has that occasional mammoth goal in him. The feel-good Belgian may depart in the summer but Liverpool will still have lots of options.
The Captain and the Midfield
After taking over the show against Inter Milan, a recently struggling Jordan Henderson looks like he might be back to his best. That his strong performances came playing “in the six”, the solo defensive midfield role, gives Klopp a new consideration. Fabinho is certainly a better “destroyer”, but Henderson is more adept at creating a transition from defense to attack.
Look for both Henderson and Fabinho to start against Chelsea with in-form and fit again Thiago as Liverpool will need their top guns in the final. Elliott has shown he can contribute too as can Milner, albeit within limited minutes and situations. Keita blows more hot and cold while the talented Jones nevertheless has deficiencies in parts of his game. Regardless both could be called on for part of the game. Oxlade-Chamberlain meanwhile is probably a better option upfront.
Defensively the Reds remain in great shape! Tsimikas is pushing Robertson at the left-back spot while Konate is laying claim to a future starting role in the center of defense. Gomez can play across the back four which provides more depth but the England international has fallen down the pecking order and one wonders if an Anfield exit is possible in the summer, especially with the club known to have scouted other central defenders this season.
What will Chelsea do in the final!
According to Liverpool players at the time, Bill Shankly would get out the chalkboard during the week and begin to explain to the players how opponents would set up against them. After a minute or two of this, he would tire of the idea, wipe the board clean and exclaim “Never mind them, here’s what we’re going to do”.
Klopp will not be so brazen, but the idea of who can control the game will be foremost on his mind. So his strategy will start not with countering Chelsea but with winning and maintaining possession. Chelsea has their own formidable midfielders so Klopp must connect his own trio effectively to his defenders and forwards.
Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel has shown he is quite prepared to play something akin to a low block double pivot and play the ball out. Lukaku will hate the lack of service on which he thrives but Chelsea can bypass Liverpool’s possession-based midfield if they execute it well.
The game will probably swing on two things, one for each side. Tuchel has shown that he is prepared to change up for big games that matter, opting to play his players where they are most comfortable, rather than shoehorning them into fixed roles that do not best suit them and where their ability is curtailed. If he gets this right, his side can take control of the game.
Similarly, Klopp has to get the best out of Alexander-Arnold, Henderson, and Salah! If Liverpool’s right side is cooking their best recipes then no side in the world can fully contain them. And none of Tuchel’s setups include overloading one side significantly. In the end, expect a chess match where the Manager who makes the best adjustments probably prevails.