Liverpool’s Premier League surge has slowed in recent weeks, particularly since the last international break.
The Reds edged past Sunderland at Anfield, but could not break through against Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium, before the inexplicable 4-3 loss at Bournemouth and throwing away three points at home to West Ham United with costly defensive errors.
Now struggling with injuries, most notably Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool are struggling to bring both sides of their game together consistently – whenever they are defensively resolute, they struggle to score and vice versa.
Combined with Chelsea’s surprising and remarkable nine successive wins, everyone below Antonio Conte’s side, including Liverpool, are facing an increasingly uphill task of hauling Chelsea back into a title race.
Nevertheless, even if the wind has slightly gone out of Liverpool’s sails, all sides will have patchy moments throughout the season – Jurgen Klopp has to remind his team of the fear they struck into sides for the opening months of the campaign, and focus on seeing out games once their immense firepower going forward has been used to devastating effect.
Moreover, should Liverpool finish short in their bid for a first Premier League title in 27 years, it should be remembered that initially few were thinking of any title challenge at all for the side that finished eighth in the table last season.
Klopp's men capable of winning silverware this term
To ensure the Klopp effect maintained its momentum, most Liverpool fans were targeting a top four finish, which seemed challenging enough given the competition of the supposed ‘Big Six’ (Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham), reigning champions Leicester City and other hopefuls such as Southampton, Everton and West Ham.
Therefore, if the 2017/18 season brings Champions League football to Anfield, especially through the manner of such attractive and exciting football that Klopp has installed thus far, then everyone associated with Liverpool will be deeply satisfied with the season.
However, there is a mentality issue present within the current Liverpool squad, and it comes with failing to win trophies on a regular basis.
As a club, Liverpool have only tasted major silverware on one occasion in the last decade, a statistic that would be as shocking to football fans of the 1970s and 80s as Liverpool’s title drought.
That one major trophy was the 2012 League Cup, delivered by Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish, who performed well in the cups but failed to transfer that form across to the Premier League.
Yet the League Cup again could not only bring another long-awaited trophy to Anfield, but usher in a more sustained period of success.
For the third consecutive season, the Reds have reached the semi-finals of a competition they have dominated more than any other club, with a record eight titles. Southampton stand in Liverpool’s way on this occasion, with Manchester United entertaining Hull City in the other semi-final.
The showpiece final would see Liverpool play their greatest rivals at Wembley, but the Saints cannot be underestimated with their quality, showcased by eliminating Arsenal in the quarter-finals, in a brilliant display at the Emirates.
Regardless of who Liverpool could play however, winning the trophy itself would lift the entire club closer to where it believes it should be – as a serial winner and a superpower club.
Most importantly though, the Liverpool players need to experience success. Most of the 2012 League Cup winning squad has gone, with only the likes of Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva around – and the latter did not even play at Wembley against Cardiff City, due to injury.
Since then, Liverpool have been the ‘nearly’ men – entertaining fanbases beyond their own, often with added incentives to succeed, such as Champions League football in the Europa League campaign or winning the 2015 FA Cup on Steven Gerrard’s birthday. Unfortunately, none of these targets came to fruition, with the league title failure in 2014, on the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, the greatest example. Even 2012 saw an FA Cup final defeat to Chelsea.
Semi-final losses in the League Cup and FA Cup in 2015 added to Brendan Rodgers’ eventual demise. In addition, the Klopp era began with two more cup finals, but sadly two more defeats – on penalties to Manchester City in the League Cup, before a second-half collapse against Sevilla in the Europa League final.
Such collapses have been witnessed in the league as well, with the latest not long ago against Bournemouth.
Whilst not the Premier League or Champions League, this Liverpool team could sweep aside all of that previous pain by winning the League Cup, providing a potential stepping stone towards greater targets.
By winning, these players will have proven to themselves their ability to win in the biggest moments. The talent is there, no doubt, and with a trophy real belief that supreme Liverpool sides of the past possessed may yet return for the current outfit, which would provide such a stimulus to a title challenge – if not this season then certainly next.
Reds and Klopp need to put end run of near misses
Moreover, for Klopp himself, having lost five straight finals with Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, ending a final with silverware would be a welcome relief and added confirmation in the success of his methods.
Other managers have used the League Cup as a platform for successful careers in England, such as Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini, and Klopp will want to get that first trophy at Anfield under his belt sooner rather than later.
The similarities of 2016/17 Liverpool and 2013/14 Liverpool are obvious, with an unreliable defence and explosive attack, even if the dynamics of the team setup are different.
Yet that side two years ago went out early in both domestic cups, so could not gain momentum and confidence outside of their league campaign, and had nothing else to drawn upon for their late title surge.
This time, should Liverpool go all the way in the League Cup, earning that winning feeling may help them manage matches and keep their heads, with experience in the most intense moments – a quality that has deserted them in recent years.
For Liverpool to return to the Premier League summit, they may need to win a different trophy first.