Liverpool’s cup specialist facing repeat dilemma ahead of Wembley return

Six appearances, five trophies. It has become the stuff of legends at Anfield – or at least of infamy, hilarity and a lesson in perfect timing – but the modern-day second-choice goalkeeper at Liverpool contributes an awful lot more than Pegguy Arphexad did during his silverware-laden spell in the early 2000s.

Back then, the understudy to Sander Westerveld joined just as the Reds embarked on a regular cup-winning spree and was pretty much on the bench throughout, including most of the cup runs, playing mainly early-round games against the likes of FC Haka, Stoke and Ipswich. He does, however, have one crossover point with the current second choice between the sticks, Caoimhin Kelleher: League Cup fixtures against Chelsea.

For Arphexad, his debut came in a 2-1 extra-time win over the Blues, in a third-round clash at Anfield. For the Irishman, it was somewhat later in the same competition: the final at Wembley in 2022, where he kept a clean sheet, scored a penalty and helped his side win silverware.

That was unquestionably the high point of Kelleher’s career up to that time, a 23-year-old in the spotlight, lifting a trophy aloft and a place in his international team seemingly there for the taking. Two years on, the same goalkeeper now faces the same fixture and the same possibilities – and, perhaps this time, a decision of whether to continue the same path or not.

After all, he still has the same obstacle ahead of him at club level – Alisson Becker, unquestionably the league’s most consistent elite performer – but has moved in age terms from blossoming young stopper towards the time when regular appearances usually determine the ceiling he could eventually reach. There’s also Gavin Bazunu, who has strode clear of his caps tally for Ireland thanks mainly to regular league action.

“It’s a different situation for Jarell [Quansah], for example. He’s part of the rotation group, it’s as easy as that, we have to do it, we don’t want to play Ibou [Konate] or the others all the time. As long as we can make the changes we will,” Jurgen Klopp explained about Liverpool’s team plans for the final at Wembley, reached at the expense of Fulham. “But Caoimhin is a top, top, top goalie. When Ali is fit, he (Kelleher) doesn’t play a lot of games so I want to give him desperately the chance to play, for development and also because he just deserves it. He deserves this competition, he deserves it on top of that because he’s always there, he gives his absolute everything.

“I don’t know how many he’s played but with the [Europa] League it’s a few and that’s how it works; he was really happy, smiling after the game. I can see he’s really happy at the chance to win the same trophy, the second trophy of his career, which would be a big one. But we know it’s Chelsea, it’s a big one and they probably want to put history right after [losing in finals to Liverpool] twice two years ago.”

Kelleher lifts the Carabao Cup at Wembley in 2022 (Getty Images)
Kelleher lifts the Carabao Cup at Wembley in 2022 (Getty Images)

The match at Craven Cottage was, in fact, Kelleher’s 12th appearance of the campaign.

Five have come in the Carabao Cup, the same amount in the Europa League, with two additional outings coming in the Premier League when Alisson was sidelined in December. It’s comfortably the biggest single-season tally of games he has managed in his career thus far – already the tally of his last two campaigns’ worth of games combined, in fact.

And yet now at 25 years of age, he is still well short of 50 total senior appearances, even when factoring his 11 international caps into the equation.

Kelleher can go on being a high-level second-choice stopper, especially with two-and-a-half years still left on his Anfield contract.

Jurgen Klopp congratulates Kelleher after reaching this year’s Carabao Cup final (Getty Images)
Jurgen Klopp congratulates Kelleher after reaching this year’s Carabao Cup final (Getty Images)

But he certainly has the talent, the mentality and the modernity about his game to be something more, even if that would initially require a club which didn’t habitually tread the road to cup finals.

It’s overlooked in the aftermath of the penalty shootout, but last time at Wembley the Irishman also produced a big save from Christian Pulisic early on in the match and another important stop with his feet from Romalu Lukaku later. Goals did go in at both ends, all flagged offside, before it was left to Kelleher to score and then Kepa to miss with the 11th penalties for either side. He has a catalogue, albeit a short one, of notable saves and impacts on matches involving Ajax, Arsenal, Wolves and more.

But he doesn’t have a guarantee of game time beyond 25 February.

A second Wembley appearance for Kelleher will only bring focus on gameplan, preparation, victory. Beyond that, though, another taste of success might only whet the appetite for what else he could go on to achieve, and that brings its own set of questions for an immovable No 2.