And so it will be a repeat of two years ago, Liverpool and Chelsea in the first domestic cup final of the season, silverware on offer for two teams rebuilding – albeit from rather different points and in very different ways – and another day out at Wembley for two sets of fans who know that stadium almost as well as their own.
Because that’s what Fulham were up against here: not just a team of the calibre of Liverpool, but also the odds and the structure of this very competition. Even if underdogs, mid-table Premier League teams or indeed lower-league sides – see Middlesbrough – reach this stage, the last four, there’s an altogether different obstacle to overcome. Competing with the top-flight’s finest is tough enough, but teams can of course do so. Across 90 minutes, at least. But the more often you have to face them, the less likely it is you prevail on multiple occasions.
Fulham had twice already led Liverpool, twice run them close and twice still lost. A third meeting was, perhaps unsurprisingly, more than a bridge too far, even if the game was far from as lopsided as Tuesday night’s semi-final, where Chelsea didn’t just overcome but overwhelmed Boro, having trailed after 90 minutes. With the EFL deciding that future semis will continue to be over two legs, though, it’s more than likely this trend will continue: only four clubs have won it since 2014, seven since 2005, 10 since 1997. One of the same group will do so again this season, and perhaps that’s how the competition organisers want it.
There was first of all, though, a moment when all that might not have been the case. A moment was all it was however, and part of the reason the top few have such an advantage is that they possess more of the players who can create those moments, more of them who can take them.
Joao Palhinha volleyed a glorious chance over the bar early on from a corner, a brief sighter to level scores on aggregate. Moments later Fulham were behind. Luis Diaz picked up a Jarell Quansah switch, beat his man in the air and found the bottom corner via a double deflection with 11 minutes on the clock; as routinely as that, Fulham had to do what no team had in 298 days and beat Liverpool by at least two.
The last to do it were Man City in April last season. Fulham are neither perennial title-winners, nor regular spenders of hundreds of millions of pounds in the transfer market, and so it wavered between improbability and impossibility that they would conjure up the same sort of trick.
Yet, this was an opportunity for them all the same. Reaching a domestic cup semi-final should still be seen as an achievement of sorts, a marker of progress or a means for excitement. Inside the stadium, however, it’s hard to suggest that was the overriding feeling, for long stretches at least.
Despite the ferociously billowing plastic flags pre-match, the only real hint in the opening exchanges of fierceness, of this being an unusually tense circumstance or a game outside the norm, came from the home support goading Harvey Elliott’s every touch and berating referee Simon Hooper’s every decision. It wasn’t that there was no atmosphere, it was more that it felt as though the home fans needed to be given a reason to believe, rather than doing so regardless and imparting that onto the players.
Ultimately, that reason didn’t arrive until very late, just 15 minutes left on the clock, after a host of near-misses at both ends.
The busy Darwin Nunez almost headed one into Cody Gakpo’s path for two, then Nunez’s own volley hit the post and when Diaz scored the rebound, the offside flag was up against the Uruguayan. At the other end, Caoimhin Kelleher had to sprawl to his right to tip one wide and Willian drilled another strike into his arms. Soon into the second half Andreas Pereira thought he had levelled, only to hit the outside of the post; Liverpool broke and Nunez freed Elliott, but his shot was saved by Leno’s legs.
Finally, the equaliser came via Issa Diop with 14 minutes left on the clock, a deft touch which flicked past Kelleher following a Harry Wilson cross from the left, before the Welsh winger almost immediately scored a second, denied by the keeper’s face this time as he dived to his right.
The Irishman, Liverpool’s penalty hero of the Carabao Cup final two years ago, made enough of a stop on that occasion to keep his side ahead on aggregate and there was very little else left for Liverpool to withstand, despite Fulham throwing forward bodies in the closing stages. Kelleher will now again get his chance in a cup final, as will Liverpool, as will Chelsea. The League Cup’s systematic and inbuilt dominance by the elite prevails.