Liverpool finally find a way to end improbable cup final affliction in unexpected fashion


In the end at Wembley, penalties were not quite required, but otherwise, fans watching at home and from afar could be forgiven for wondering if it was a two-year-old replay unfolding before their eyes.

Caoimhin Kelleher heroics against Chelsea? Check. VAR-led disallowed goals? Check. Woodwork hit by both teams? Check again. And above all else, the unusual sight of Liverpool failing to match their usual exploits in the final third, both in terms of creating chances and – more importantly – taking them.

For a club which habitually nets over 100 a season – they were at the century mark already for 2023/24 heading into this game – cup finals seem to render them improbably impotent in the penalty box. Even last year, when cup finals were a distant dream, the Reds scored 103 in all competitions.

Liverpool hadn’t scored a single goal in their past three cup finals, two of which were against this same opponent. Indeed, in 10 finals – major and minor – under Jurgen Klopp’s leadership, the Reds had only scored 11 goals in total and only three times scored more than once in a single occasion. And, as the whistle blew on 90 minutes of the Carabao Cup final at Wembley, it was no goals in four.

It was past a trend and into problem territory at this point for Klopp and co, but they found a way. Their captain, Virgil van Dijk, found a way.

Of course, by the nature of cup finals and fixtures in general when silverware is up for grabs, teams can be a little more cagey, cautious, safety-first in terms of runners ahead of the ball.

But even so, exclude the 2022 Community Shield and it was no goals in the first 90 minutes of play in five finals: the 2019 Club World Cup, the EFL and FA Cups of 2022 and Champions League of the same year. And, now, February 2024 at Wembley.

It’s extremely unusual that so good a side, so clinical and productive a team, manage to misfire on the biggest stage with such regularity, even if this time in particular they had ample excuse for it.

With none of Mohamed Salah, Dominik Szoboszlai or Darwin Nunez making it back to fitness in time to feature, and with Diogo Jota sidelined for the longer term, over 50 goals were missing from the Reds’ regular line-up.

By contrast, between substitutes Jayden Danns, Bobby Clark, James McConnell, Lewis Koumas and Trey Nyoni – the former three all came on – there were a total of 15 senior appearances between them, most of them brief. So an element of incompatability or inconsistency in the final third was to be expected as Klopp had to very much make do to fill his squad.

Even so, chances were created by those who started: Luis Diaz went both close and wild, Cody Gakpo hit the post, and Harvey Elliott had fans at the opposite end of the stadium briefly cheering when they thought an effort into the side-netting was actually in.

And of course, the contentious moment of the match: around 60 mins in, Van Dijk scored what looked a perfectly legimate goal – but Wataru Endo, standing still from an offside position, was seemingly blocking Levi Colwill’s run. Whether that truly had much impact over the Liverpool captain towering over Ben Chilwell is highly debatable.

But there was nobody to halt the captain second time around, when a powerful run and deft header three minutes before the end of extra-time left the desperate, despairing Djordje Petrovic grasping thin air and sent the Dutch defender towards the corner flag, collapsing on the turf in delight, relief and no doubt sheer exhaustion.

Virgil van Dijk scores Liverpool’s winner in extra-time (REUTERS)
Virgil van Dijk scores Liverpool’s winner in extra-time (REUTERS)
Liverpool’s captain celebrates with Caoimhin Kelleher – the goalkeeper kept the Reds in the game with key saves (AFP via Getty Images)
Liverpool’s captain celebrates with Caoimhin Kelleher – the goalkeeper kept the Reds in the game with key saves (AFP via Getty Images)

Make no mistake, the fact the Reds have their 10th League Cup trophy is down in enormous part to Kelleher. Two excellent stops at either end of the pitch, at either end of 90 minutes in fact, kept the Reds in the game and in place to strike.

But to pick up the trophy, in the end, the ball has to hit the net one way or another.

Van Dijk it was who finally found the route to goal to ensure, this time, the Reds didn’t need penalties, and didn’t need to pick themselves up to continue an important campaign after cup final disappointment. Instead, Klopp’s farewell season has received a tremendous midway boost, and a first trophy of the season – a first trophy for a new-look team – has been secured.

When they needed someone the most, it was the captain who found a way.