Why the Carabao Cup is so much more than just a trophy to Liverpool and Chelsea

Mohamed Salah, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Cole Palmer (Getty/The Independent)
Mohamed Salah, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Cole Palmer (Getty/The Independent)

In the last few days, Mauricio Pochettino has reminded his Chelsea players of the embarrassment they felt coming off the pitch at Anfield a few weeks ago. Liverpool eviscerated them 4-1. But Jurgen Klopp’s squad haven’t really dwelt on that victory themselves. They’ve had too much happening. Liverpool are going full steam ahead for four trophies.

This League Cup may well be a first on a few levels, but also a last.

It is at least possible it will be the last trophy that Klopp wins with Liverpool. It could well be a special afternoon, even if it isn’t totally realised on the day.

The League Cup has a curious place in the modern game, as debate about the calendar continues to grow. Even though the four wealthiest clubs have dominated it for the past decade – with Manchester City winning it six times – the constant theme is whether they might be absolved from playing in it.

But the third-ranked English trophy can end up being more important than might be expected.

It is always about more than the day. You don’t even have to repeat Brian Clough’s well-rehearsed line about how winning any trophy brings the urge for more trophies. Everyone is aware, particularly Pochettino. This could well be the first trophy of both his and the Clearlake ownership’s time at Stamford Bridge, as well as his own first major silverware in England at all.

Liverpool hammered Chelsea 4-1 when they met at Anfield (Getty)
Liverpool hammered Chelsea 4-1 when they met at Anfield (Getty)

The Argentine recently bristled when he had old words from his time at Tottenham Hotspur thrown back at him, when he appeared to say that winning cups was just for “egos”. What he really meant was a club with Spurs’ resources had to prioritise the league and Champions League because that was far more essential for competing with the wealthiest clubs in the long term. He knows he could do with the ego boost of a trophy now.

Chelsea were for a long time able to ignore such concerns, of course. Under Roman Abramovich, they just picked this trophy off time and again, often in down years. One was actually against Pochettino’s Spurs, in the 2014-15 final. Chelsea’s win that day was hailed as the start of a new era under Jose Mourinho, only for that to end just as abruptly. The Portuguese was gone by December. Clough’s maxim isn’t always true.

Nevertheless, the cup is widely seen as being important because of how it can serve as a landmark in a team’s development.

Klopp himself saw that from the other side on his last appearance in this final, which was also against Chelsea. That 2021-22 victory on penalties was the penultimate trophy for his first great Liverpool team, as they similarly competed on four fronts.

It’s remarkable how much has changed from that day. The world has changed. That match came mere days after Russia had invaded Ukraine, eventually forcing Abramovich’s sale of the club, leading to the upheaval under the current owners.

This is what Pochettino has inherited. The circumstances have led to a lot of debate about his capability at Chelsea. The reality is probably that he took over a squad that was too young and put together too expensively. There is known to be regret within the club at some of the prices paid, even for some of the signings that have worked out.

Pochettino would relish a trophy after such a frustrating season so far (Getty)
Pochettino would relish a trophy after such a frustrating season so far (Getty)

Would they really go so high for Enzo Fernandez again? You only have to look at his World Cup-winning teammate Alexis Mac Allister’s progress at Liverpool, having been signed for much less.

The difference is that Mac Aliister came into a system that worked, where there was a clear role for him. Fernandez was almost just signed as “a midfielder”. Pochettino doesn’t even use him in the role he initially specialised in.

Chelsea insiders would admit they are still figuring out the direction of the club, which explains yet another prospective appointment from Brighton this week.

It points to how, for all the debate about Pochettino, he’d have done well to deliver a trophy this early. The three-handled League Cup might offer a strange clarity when he doesn’t even know his best team.

And Chelsea’s performances have drastically picked up since that chastening defeat at Anfield.

Liverpool’s performance meanwhile illustrated this Klopp team are both ahead of schedule and contemplating the end of something. There is a lament that the German has clearly built a formidable new side again, and is set to leave it.

That could have proved distracting for this side, but there’s been no sign of that. The 4-1 win over Chelsea was the first home league game following the announcement of Klopp’s pending departure, after all. It pointed to how they have found a rhythm, and a resolve. That could also be witnessed in the 4-1 comeback against Luton Town on Wednesday.

All the while, with Klopp keeping the players so focused, the executives have been left to concentrate on replacing the German. The Independent has been told there has been considerable progress in the last two weeks.

Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool is coming to an end (Reuters)
Jurgen Klopp’s time at Liverpool is coming to an end (Reuters)

Although the stated plan under chief executive Billy Hogan has been to sort the sporting director first, the hierarchy are obviously well aware the race for the next manager is much more competitive.

Both Bayern Munich and Barcelona are looking at the top candidate, Xabi Alonso. There have even been comments within German football that the announcement of Tuchel’s summer departure from Bayern was to make a point to Alonso. They’re serious about their interest in him. They also know, according to well-placed figures, that Liverpool are currently ahead. Alonso and Sporting’s Ruben Amorim have emerged as the main two candidates, with the Basque well out in front of the Portuguese.

Some in the market feel Chelsea may yet get involved. The hierarchy are intent on persisting with Pochettino, but events can spiral out of control. On the other side, Pochettino himself might be tempted by other offers, given that this is going to be an active summer for coaches. It is possible that up to six major jobs could be available.

Which all brings us right back around to the point of how the League Cup final often ends up meaning more than just a trophy that people dismiss until they are close to winning it.

The result, or even the performance, could well have some say in what comes next for both clubs.

It’s not everything, but it might well be a first and a last.

The Carabao Cup final, Chelsea vs Liverpool at Wembley Stadium, kick-off at 3pm on Sunday, 25 February, coverage starts at 2pm on Sky Sports Main Event