Perhaps it is too simplistic to say that Sunday’s League Cup final meeting of Chelsea and Liverpool sees the two teams arrive amidst differing backdrops. Nevertheless, it would be churlish not to recognise that Jurgen Klopp’s team will arrive at Wembley with a greater bounce in their step than Thomas Tuchel’s men.
Chelsea have won five FA Cups, 3 League Cups and five Premier Leagues during the golden 18-year Roman Abramovic era, and are well accustomed to the final stages of such competitions. In his one year in charge, Tuchel has led Chelsea to five finals already and clinched the trophy they most desired: the Champions League.
However, they have won just one of their last eight Wembley finals, including Community Shields, and throw into the mix that Tuchel is currently experiencing what many would describe as his most testing spell at the club, the west Londoners head into Sunday’s showpiece with a slight cloud over their heads.
The main area of concern is how the team functions and, specifically: the Romelu Lukaku situation. Dropped — or rested, as Tuchel put it — for the midweek Champions League match with Lille after being as anonymous as possible in the preceding league game against Crystal Palace, Chelsea’s record signing is unlikely to start on Sunday. The Belgian’s form has been a concern for some time, but, more to the point, it’s how he fits into Chelsea’s playbook that poses the greater issue.
Yes, he scored twice as Chelsea claimed the Fifa Club World Cup earlier in the month, but Tuchel currently has more trust in the goalscoring nous of Kai Havertz. It was telling that the Chelsea manager highlighted the recurrent troubles that strikers have at the club. Lukaku can look at Andriy Shevchenko, Fernando Torres and Hernan Crespo.
Part of the reason why Chelsea are 10 points behind Liverpool and a further three behind Manchester City is that they haven’t matched their rival’s goalscoring numbers. Chelsea have scored 49 in the league so far this season, which despite being good is inferior to the other two teams. Due to injury, Mason Mount has failed to gain the consistency that made him so lethal last term, while Christian Pulisic and Timo Werner have struggled for game time.
Instead, Chelsea are more reliant on a solid defence with Tuchel’s team built more in the image of Thiago Silva, N’Golo Kante and Matteo Kovacic than any fancy attacker. Even Chelsea’s effervescent wing backs, Ben Chilwell and Reece James, have been sidelined so the more stoic pair of Cesar Azpilicueta and Marcos Alonso will likely start against Liverpool.
That won’t stop Chelsea hoping to make it three trophy successes for the season despite us still being in February. Liverpool, on the other hand, are in their first Wembley final since 2016, excluding two Community Shield appearances, and will be a difficult force to stop. In contrast to Chelsea’s troubles, Klopp’s team are currently purring and with little holding them back as they go to Wembley after six successive victories in all competitions.
Crucially, those triumphs have emboldened Liverpool’s quest to make this season a silverlined one. A quadruple is still on the table, and although the focus has shifted to catching City in the Premier League, there is a feeling that Klopp’s side can make amends for slightly underachieving when it comes to trophies won during his reign.
Unlike City, and Chelsea to an extent, who hoard England’s domestic cups, Liverpool have solely triumphed in the Premier League and Champions League under their German manager. The sense is that Sunday’s final could put paid to that.
Klopp has probably not had it as good as Liverpool manager. The emotional fist pumps that were dished out following their 6-0 demolition of Leeds United on Wednesday, which took them to within three points of league leaders City, demonstrated the bubbling inner feelings that are carrying Liverpool deep into all four competitions.
Although Roberto Firmino will miss Sunday’s game and it looks unlikely Diogo Jota will make it either — both suffered injuries in the Champions League 10 days ago — Liverpool still have an envious forward line. Mo Salah and Sadio Mane have been involved in 51 of the team’s goals this campaign highlighting their irrepressible influence. What’s more, Luis Diaz’s swift settling in has added greater verve to the attack and brought added bite to the high-pressing style.
Further back, and the depth of Liverpool’s squad becomes even more apparent. Harvey Elliott’s recent return from injury and Thiago Alcantara’s growing influence in midfield strengthens Klopp’s hand. The Liverpool manager will have to decide between Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate to partner Virgil van Dijk, both of whom are dependable operators who rarely put a foot wrong, but has already confirmed that cup ‘keeper Caoimhin Kelleher will start in goal.
That the above appraisal of Liverpool’s current position doesn’t even feature their leading goalscorer in this very competition — Takumi Minamino with four goals — adds weight to the argument that this is the strongest squad during Klopp’s time on Merseyside.
The possibilities for Liverpool’s season are endless and the gilt-coated part of the campaign starts in earnest on Sunday when the first trophy is up for grabs under the arch. Walking down Wembley Way, there will be a team who have already lifted silverware three times this season. And alongside them, those who want to start their own trophy haul.