In a season of great beauty, sometimes a bit of grit is worth its weight in silver. For Jurgen Klopp, a 10th cup final in nine seasons at Liverpool was hard won and secured to a feeling of immense relief on Wednesday night.
Make no mistake, this was a tough old evening on the banks of the Thames and the sort of semi-final that simply refused to die. And great credit to Fulham for that – they kept it alive and then they made it kick.
Even when they conceded to Luis Diaz so early in the evening, doubling their aggregate deficit to two, there was no wilting from Marco Silva’s side. No backing down.
They pushed, they found weaknesses, they hit a post, and then they scored through Issa Diop. From 3-1 down in the two-leg picture, it was suddenly 3-2 with 14 minutes to play. Cue a thriller of errors and nerves as Fulham chucked any sense of inhibition in the river.
There were times in that finale when they looked like they might even pull it off; there were others in the thick of it when Klopp looked murderous. Combustible.
Liverpool booked their place in the Carabao Cup final after a frenetic match at Craven Cottage
Luis Diaz scored after 11 minutes as Liverpool made a flying start to the semi-final
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But here’s the thing with Liverpool, or rather Liverpool 2:0, if we correctly recognise that Klopp has orchestrated an excellent remodelling of his squad: they’re tough. They are resilient. They can dance and they can take a punch, so on a night like this, when many of their key players were absent, when their best level of performance was nowhere to be seen, they found a way.
As such, they will face Chelsea for the Carabao Cup at Wembley on February 25, which sits nicely alongside their current status as Premier League leaders.
Time will tell if the absence of Mo Salah is detrimental to efforts on both of those fronts, and likewise if a recurring susceptibility to counter-attacks manifests into a deeper issue. Certainly in regards to the latter, it has reared its head at times this season and few clubs have been more effective than Fulham in exploiting the space behind their full-backs. Who knows, maybe one strand of Silva’s legacy for a promising season will be a solidifying of a blueprint for how best to attack Liverpool.
But that is hypothetical, of course. Dealing with more solid matter, we can safely say Klopp’s campaign could not be going much better, save for the injuries that mean he is perhaps rotating a little deeper into his squad than ideal.
In this case, that meant four changes to the side that beat Bournemouth, with Caoimhin Kelleher, Jarell Quansah, Ryan Gravenberch and Cody Gakpo fielded in place of Alisson, Ibrahima Konate, Curtis Jones and Diogo Jota. Perhaps more notable was the presence of Andy Robertson on their bench for the first time since he injured his shoulder 13 weeks ago.
It is a mark of Klopp’s reinvention of this squad, and indeed the promise of Conor Bradley within his defence, that Robertson’s absence hasn’t been felt more profoundly. But here they were tested, most visibly during a flurry of three Fulham chances in the space of two minutes prior to Liverpool’s opener.
Issa Diop levelled for Fulham late on but Fulham couldn’t find the second goal they needed
Liverpool were jubilant after reaching their first final of the season as they chase four trophies
Two of them were quick counters down opposing flanks that hinted at Liverpool’s vulnerabilities and the other was a skied volley by Joao Palhinha which he ought to have buried. The looseness of Gomez’s set-piece marking for that latter opportunity seemed to rile Klopp and rightly so.
With the warning sounded, Liverpool sharpened up and led after 11 minutes, assisted by some weak defending and dubious goalkeeping. The move was initiated by Quansah, who pinged 50 yards cross-field and into the path of Diaz. At that stage, Castagne wildly misjudged the flight of the ball and lost his aerial battle with Diaz, which in turn allowed the forward to cut in and cast eyes at goal. His shot was given extra bite by two deflections, but Bernd Leno was awfully slow in getting down to his near post.
That stung for Silva, but his side were still in the fight, shown by a pair of moderate chances for Raul Jimenez and Willian. Jimenez also had a flaky shout for a penalty rejected, so there was danger here.
Jurgen Klopp appreciated the moment, saying: ‘Never in life should you take for granted that you are part of a football team that can win trophies’
Marco Silva was proud of his players but disappointed they couldn’t reach Fulham’s first Carabao Cup final
And yet Liverpool were predominantly comfortable, with Diaz having a second goal correctly disallowed for offside and Harvey Elliott a delightful blur of clever touches in the middle. Towards the end of the half his control and delivery almost made for a lovely assist for Darwin Nunez, only for Gravenberch to sneak ahead of his team-mate and blow the chance.
A similar refrain could made at the start of the second half, when Diaz and Gakpo had openings, and in turn those misses kept risk in the equation. That was highlighted when Andreas Pereira rattled the frame after an error by Kelleher and more pointedly when Diop bundled the equaliser off his thigh, after Conor Bradley, so impressive in his first-team breakthrough, had been skinned by Harry Wilson.
With Fulham back in it, Wilson forced a good save from Kelleher and Willian repeatedly seemed one touch from breaking through the lines. They were impressive and Liverpool less so. But they are in a final and won’t care a jot.