Klopp’s farewell tour begins with reminder of his legendary coaching status

Liverpool should not have stood a chance. Victory seemed impossible as much as just implausible.

Heading into Sunday’s Carabao Cup final with Chelsea, the Reds were without a whole host of key players.

Mohamed Salah, Darwin Nunez and Dominik Szoboszlai weren’t risked despite coming close to the required fitness level, with Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Thiago Alcantara, Joel Matip, Curtis Jones, Stefan Bajcetic and Diogo Jota already ruled out.

Matters were made worse when Ryan Gravenberch had to be stretchered off midway through the first half with a nasty ankle injury.

After 28 minutes, Liverpool’s lineup read like one Jurgen Klopp would usually reserve for round three of the Carabao Cup as opposed to the final.

It resembled the Under-18 side that took to the pitch in 2019 against Aston Villa when the senior Reds were at the FIFA Club World Cup.

Liverpool had Caoimhin Kelleher to thank for a pulsating final heading to extra-time.

When Virgil van Dijk appeared to head them in front on the hour mark before a cruel VAR review chalked it off for offside against Wataru Endo, the momentum seemed to swing back the way of Chelsea.

The billion-pound Blues – later christened the billion-pound bottle-jobs by Gary Neville – peppered Kelleher’s goal.

Cole Palmer. Conor Gallagher, Christopher Nkunku and Enzo Fernandez all missed golden chances to break the deadlock, only to be thwarted by themselves or Kelleher.

As Liverpool’s kids – including Bobby Clark, James McConnell, Jayden Danns and Jarell Quansah – grew into proceedings, the feeling switched back.

Extra-time belonged to Liverpool and the glut of Chelsea chances just stopped. The Reds weren’t exactly creating the best of openings themselves but they were still carrying the relevant menace.

And then Van Dijk popped up again, this time from a corner with no chance of anyone being ruled offside.

That was the winner. That was the moment where all Liverpool’s hard work paid off.

And it was the moment for Klopp to revel. Liverpool have been hit brutally hard by their injury crisis this season, but his next-man-up policy has won them a trophy and has them sitting top of the Premier League.

That even extends to the transfer market and fit nicely into the story of the game. Moises Caicedo spurned a £111m move to Liverpool to join Chelsea instead, the injured Romeo Lavia the same for £58m.

The lesser-known Wataru Endo has been a huge success on Merseyside since joining from Stuttgart and he thoroughly outplayed the Blues’ £225m midfield.

The XI which finished the game for Liverpool – Kelleher; Gomez, Quansah, Van Dijk, Tsimikas; Endo, McConnell, Clark; Elliott, Danns, Diaz – had no business in winning a Carabao Cup final. And yet it did. And yet it was deserved.

How many other managers would have overseen a victory in Klopp’s shoes?.

In the opposite dugout, Mauricio Pochettino was left reeling having again failed to win a cup final. His career might be viewed differently had he beat Klopp in their 2019 Champions League meeting. Alas, only one of them has since risen into football’s legendary pantheon.

Klopp has not just built the Liverpool first-team in his perfect gegenpressing rock-and-roll image, but completely redefined a club who were going nowhere until his 2015 arrival.

He’s handed out 45 Premier League debuts since arriving at Anfield and seamlessly bled in young players who feel empowered to play beside their superstars.

It’s the project that Chelsea and Todd Boehly can only dream of.

The prize Liverpool really want is still ahead of them, but this is one hell of a confidence boost, a reminder they are still good enough regardless of who is out missing.

That stems from Klopp and the work he’s put in over nearly nine years. Good luck to whoever tries to succeed him.

What we know

  • Liverpool beat Chelsea 1-0 in Carabao Cup final thanks to late Virgil van Dijk goal
  • Reds ended game with several teenagers and academy graduates on pitch
  • Victory is a triumph of coaching from Jurgen Klopp.

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