Most of the time domestic cups don’t matter to the big clubs. And then they do. He has started to matter to Liverpool.
The Premier League was Jurgen Klopp’s primary target this season, but two disappointing weeks of the festive period made his chances of winning the title too distant.
There is little room for error when dueling with Manchester City. Liverpool are 11 points behind the champions with two points from three matches.
No one is giving up at Anfield, but the practicality outweighs the optimism when double-digit gaps appear at the top of the table.
During his seven years at Merseyside, Klopp has had little time for the FA and Carabao Cup. They get in the way of big ambitions. The Champions League is the priority now, but the knockout rounds are a crapshoot. The best sides await in Europe.
By the end of the last-16 tie against Inter Milan in mid-February, the Africa Cup of Nations will be over and Liverpool should be close to full force, but the competition is unpredictable.
For now, the Carabao Cup is the best chance to add to Anfield’s trophy cabinet. The artificial ruckus surrounding the postponement of the first leg of the semi-final against Arsenal on Thursday – the exploit of Covid and the desire to weaponise is pervasive in every part of British life – obscured the reality that delaying the game does not suit one.
Wembley is within touching distance. Klopp is aware that capturing trophies – even less prestigious and lucrative ones – has an impact on the mindset of the team. Success becomes a habit. A Champions League victory in 2019 marked the start of a title-winning season. A trophy combines speed and the opposite is true. Useless campaigns soon become routine – just ask Manchester United.
The beauty of the Carabao Cup is that it can be tied until the end of February. Manchester City have certainly enjoyed being able to add this to their collection of silverware over the past decade before winter comes to an end. A victorious visit from Wembley would also be welcome for Liverpool: it has been ten years since Kenny Dalglish brought the Carling Cup back to Anfield. The FA Cup is an even more distant memory. Sixteen years have passed since Steven Gerrard broke West Ham United’s hearts at the Millennium Stadium.
The oldest knockout tournament in the world is still an idea. An FA Cup third-round game against Shrewsbury Town at New Meadow is likely to take place today, even if Klopp’s first team is slow to recover from the virus. The EFL ruled that 14 first-team squad members – including under-21 players who have made a senior appearance – must be available. The FA, an organization very keen to play games to protect its TV deal, are happy to see young players on the pitch if necessary.
Liverpool could have done without drawing Shrewsbury. It’s not often that a rivalry erupts between a top-flight side and a League One team, but the Shropshire club have an ax to grind with Klopp. The teams had faced each other in the fourth round in the same competition two years ago. The problem came after their 2–2 draw at Shrewsbury. The replay was scheduled during the Premier League’s inaugural winter break. Klopp and his team flew towards the sun, Neil Critchley relegated Liverpool’s youngest starting line-up to a 1–0 win and Kopp went on. But resentment remained in the town’s boardroom.
In notes to the club accounts, which were published last year, chairman Roland Witcherley said Liverpool’s approach cost Shrewsbury a minimum of £500,000 as there was no live television coverage and ticket prices to Anfield were reduced. The feeling of complaint has intensified as Sunday’s match has been ignored even by broadcasters, who were expecting another weak team from Klopp.
If Liverpool makes progress, the FA Cup will assume more importance in the eyes of the manager as the rounds go by. For now, though, securing a spot in the EFL’s showpiece game at Wembley remains January’s main task.