Just over a month ago, Liverpool had four competitions to compete for. Now, three down, they have only one left to go.
Their brilliant record in penalty shootouts came back to haunt them just at the wrong time, as they suffered their first cup final loss on penalties, having won their previous four – most notably in Istanbul and in Cardiff, for the 2006 FA Cup Final.
In the end, it was sadly Manchester City’s day, winning their second League Cup in three years and leaving Liverpool still with only one major honour for the past decade (the 2012 League Cup).
For Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp to win a trophy inside his first five months as manager was ultimately too much to ask for, however the Reds fought and scrapped admirably against Manuel Pellegrini’s side, which, with the exception of Kevin De Bruyne, was at full strength with the likes of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure, David Silva and Sergio Aguero.
Overall though, it was second choice Willy Caballero who made the difference, with three brilliant saves in the shootout condemning Liverpool to a heart-breaking defeat. Klopp’s men took City all the way in the final, working hard, despite the obvious gap in quality that was apparent.
In all honesty, the performance reflected their entire run in the League Cup as a whole – fighting, squeezing through in the tightest of margins, especially with penalty shootout victories over Carlisle United and Stoke City, but they could not make it three in a row at Wembley. The only exception to this was Liverpool’s exceptionally clinical 6-1 victory away to Southampton, but that kind of performance has been inconsistent, to say the least, so far in Klopp’s reign.
Klopp has plenty of work to do in the summer
Of course that’s hardly surprising, given they are Brendan Rodgers’ players, and Klopp will have time and money to make serious changes in the summer as he looks to shape his own squad ahead of next season.
Inevitably newspapers have begun circulating over who could arrive and depart ahead of next season, but undoubtedly Anfield will be a hub of activity, although Liverpool’s German manager would apparently prefer the majority of his new signings to be in place ahead of pre-season this summer.
Already Joël Matip and Marko Grujić have been signed for the following campaign from FC Schalke and Red Star Belgrade respectively. Meanwhile, Udinese’s Piotr Zielinski, Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell, Bayern Munich’s Mario Gotze have all been linked with moving to Klopp’s revolution, alongside every goalkeeper on the planet after Simon Mignolet’s latest blunder against Manchester City’s Fernandinho, despite all his venerable efforts to compensate for the error.
From now until the end of the season, Klopp needs to decide who he can rely on for next season, who can satisfy as a squad player and who needs to be sold in the summer.
Given his reluctance to play £32.5 million Christian Benteke, ignoring him for the Wembley showpiece and leaving the Belgian to watch from the substitutes’ bench, it appears likely that the 25-year-old will be on his way out at the end of the season.
Also facing no Liverpool future is Mario Balotelli, especially if the Reds can recoup most of the £16 million fee they paid when the Italian signed from AC Milan. Now on loan at the Serie A club but seemingly not in their long-term plans, the ever-growing and cash-rich Chinese Super League could be Balotelli’s next destination.
Despite the number of teams available and the fact that the two have never played in Europe before, it was still no surprise to see Liverpool’s name drawn with fierce rivals Manchester United for the last 16 of the Europa League.
Typically Louis Van Gaal’s side are picking up form ahead of the two-legged clash, with three successive wins lately, the last one coming against Arsenal. Both sides have struggled this season and have their problems, however Liverpool have lost all four fixtures against Van Gaal’s United and that statistic needs to be put right.
The Europa League is now Liverpool’s only chance of a trophy this season, their last shot for glory in Klopp’s first campaign, and also their only realistic hope of Champions League football. Consequently, they cannot go out with a whimper, especially against their greatest opponents.
Pochettino's Sprus the perfect inspiration for Klopp & co.
Regardless of what happens for the rest of this season, Klopp should look to Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham Hotspur for inspiration and guidance when preparing his new-look Liverpool side for next season.
After they lost to Chelsea in the League Cup final last season, Pochettino guided his squad of players, who he had not enjoyed much time to shape and were still adapting to his methods and demands, to a respectable finish in the Premier League, before kicking on this season.
Now they stand a great chance of winning their first league title for 55 years.
Furthermore, their high-pressing game, tight defence and clinical finisher is exactly the type of blueprint Klopp is seeking to apply at Anfield, and, as with Pochettino, on a budget smaller than Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Spurs look certain for a top-four finish, ensuring a return of Champions League football to White Hart Lane, and Pochettino will have enjoyed a brilliant two seasons building up the North London side into an elite force in England again post-Gareth Bale.
Finally, both Pochettino and Klopp are happy to incorporate youth, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli two outstanding examples for Tottenham, while Klopp has already tried out a number of youngsters in cup games to see if any can be part of the first-team squad for next season, while the likes of Emre Can and Divock Origi continue to develop through regular game-time.
Klopp could do a lot worse then examine Pochettino and Tottenham ahead of his first full season in charge of Liverpool.
Liverpool take on Manchester City again tonight, this time in the Premier League, where it becomes a far more significant game for Pellegrini’s side given their title challenge.
Nevertheless, the least the Reds can do for their fans is take revenge for the anguish and despair from Wembley and effectively knock City out of one competition – just as they did to Liverpool at the weekend.