When Liverpool’s 28 shots failed to yield a goal on Sunday afternoon against Plymouth, reality started to bite: Jurgen Klopp’s side may have to play nine games this January. Assuming the Reds ease past their League Two rivals when they travel to Devon for their replay, they will be in the Fourth Round of the competition and with those games scheduled for the final weekend of the month, the Merseysiders may enter February having played, on average, once every 3.4 days through January.
So, the Reds could be forgiven for looking at this week’s EFL Cup semi-final trip to Southampton as an unwanted distraction. After all, Klopp’s men are chasing down Chelsea at the top of the Premier League table, potentially playing three more matches than their rivals before February starts. Not ideal.
Far from a distraction, though, the EFL Cup is massive for Liverpool. Forget the ‘runt sibling’ tag the League Cup gets, Klopp needs this trophy, as do the club.
Rewind almost a year and the same final marked what many Kopites thought would be the occasion that really announced their German boss’s arrival in English football. The Reds had blown hot and cold in the league and Europe under their new coach, only a few months into the job at that point, but their run in the Capital One Cup was truly excellent. A 6-1 mauling of Southampton at St Mary’s Stadium was the highlight. Alas, they met a Manchester City team at Wembley with a little more nous on the day and lost on penalty kicks, which set rather a trend for the 2015/16 campaign, culminating in a disappointing defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League Final to close the season.
That defeat in Switzerland made it five major final defeats in a row for Klopp – an unwanted record and one that is not befitting of one of the top coaches of the modern era. He’s due a win, then. Although this week’s match is not the final, there are at least 180 minutes of action between Liverpool and a return trip to Wembley, it’s as vital as any clash of the 49-year-old’s reign on Merseyside. Lose to the Saints and a first Premier League crown would more than paper over the disappointment, but defeat would likely mean be another silverware-free campaign for Liverpool – who have not lifted a trophy since the League Cup in 2012 – and another for Klopp – who is without a major honour since the same year.
Southampton will be up for it, too. Like Liverpool, they rested a host of key players for a weekend FA Cup draw vs. Norwich, but with the Saints out of the Europa League and unlikely to be the team to bridge the gap between the top six and the rest this term, Claude Puel will see this as his big chance for glory this season. The EFL Cup presents a major trophy and a ticket back into continental competition, both of which have been in short supply on the Hampshire coast in recent history.
This two-legged tie, then, is not a distraction for Liverpool, it is vital one that will define their season. A cup victory may even be the defining moment of Klopp’s time at the club.
Liverpool are a team without a winning identity. Once so dominant, they now have a generation of fans who have never seen them lift the biggest prize in English football, while their most recent memory of success was nearly winning the league in 2013/14 – a season that will be forever remembered for Steven Gerrard’s slip and Luis Suarez’s eventual departure.
The narrative may be that the EFL Cup is a distraction for Liverpool. A distraction they really do not need. But it should really be the key priority this month. Win and they may face Manchester United in the final. What a way that would be for Klopp to banish his own personal daemons and for the club to bring back that winning feeling.