In his weekly Liverpool blog, Dave Tindall explains why the Capital One Cup final is set to go the distance and gives his thoughts on the Europa League clash with Manchester United.
I had a feeling that penalties might end up shaping this hugely pivotal week in Liverpool’s season.
That said, I was thinking more Sunday evening than Thursday night.
But, hopefully it’s a good omen that Liverpool’s progression to the last 16 of the Europa League has been decided by a spot-kick as I can’t shake the idea off that LFC v Manchester City is destined to end in a shootout.
If we can despatch them the way James Milner did against Augsburg at Anfield – that single swing of his right boot the only goal over the two legs – I’ll be delighted, even if there was a momentary heart-flutter when the goalkeeper went the right way.
So what makes me so sure that the ultimate drama will play out again at Wembley on Sunday?
For starters, history.
Liverpool never do anything easy in finals. For recent evidence, think Cardiff (2012 Carling Cup final), West Ham (2006 FA Cup final) and AC Milan (2005 Champions League final). Yes, our last three trophy wins have all come via penalty shootouts.
Secondly, my thinking on the match has gone all the way back to square one after watching both teams in European action this week.
Before Wednesday night, I was thinking we might just nick it on spot-kicks. Then I watched Man City put away Dynamo Kiev 3-1 and decided that they might just be too good. Although we walloped them 4-1 at the Etihad, they gave us the game on a plate tactically.
With Yaya Toure pushed further forward, Fernando and Fernandinho providing a defensive shield, Vincent Kompany back to marshal the defence and Sergio Aguero in red-hot form (he was coming back from injury back in November; now he’s scored eight in his last seven), City surely have a template that will work far, far better.
But even though we only edged past Augsburg, there were plenty of positives in the Liverpool performance that made me revert back to keeping the faith.
Another 60 minutes from Daniel Sturridge, further sharpening of Philippe Coutinho’s match fitness, a third clean sheet in a row and no new injury niggles.
Sturridge, Coutinho and Firmino aren’t exactly Suarez, Messi and Neymar but our front three linked impressively at times and have the class to pick City apart. They’ll need to be more clinical than they were against Augsburg but all are capable of providing the moment of magic than can win a final.
In an ideal world, LFC will win it in normal time and I’ll avoid any shootout stress but somehow I feel I’m in for a wild ride.
It’s fairly obvious that the starting XI against Augsburg will be very, very similar to the one that Jurgen Klopp will roll out against Manchester City.
The only real area for debate is the role of Lucas. Will he stay on in central defence to partner Mamadou Sakho, will he be used a holding midfielder (allowing Kolo Toure to come back into central defence) or will he have to settle for a place on the bench?
It wouldn’t be the worst idea to base Sunday’s team on the one that stunned City 4-1 in November. That XI read:
Mignolet, Clyne, Moreno, Lovren, Skrtel, Can, Milner, Lucas, Coutinho, Lallana, Firmino.
The central defenders will have to change while Sturridge for Lallana in the front three is an upgrade. Skipper Jordan Henderson will start so that means Lucas would need to step in for one of Can or Milner.
The Liverpool Echo gave Lucas a ‘7’ in the 4-1 and the review read: “Booked and will miss the home game with Swansea next time out. He will be sorely missed for the protection and composure he offers.”
Can scored an ‘8’: “Sublime backheel for Firmino’s goal and was a muscular presence in a packed midfield, consistently looking to join in the attack. Booked.”
Milner, as you could probably guess, got a solid ‘7’: “Worked his socks off and got his side forward when he could. Probably his best game for Liverpool, if you ignore the ridiculous backpass he got away with.”
The excellent ‘This Is Anfield’ website had similar verdicts, giving Lucas ‘7.5’ and this glowing review: “He was again the glue that held the Reds together at the Etihad. So much of what the 28-year-old does goes under the radar, but his use of the ball and expertise defensively were pivotal to the outcome of the game.”
For me, Lucas should play but, given Henderson’s presence, I’d keep him in central defence and keep the same team that edged past Augsburg.
A quick check of Opta shows that, in the last eight games between us and City, both teams have scored in all of them.
I can see that continuing on Sunday and, given the attacking talent on show, my hard-earned cash is going on a 2-2 draw (14/1 available) followed by an agonising period of extra-time before we add to our incredible record in shootouts and make it 15 out of 18.
As for scorers? Surely a punt on Philippe Coutinho at 7/2 for an anytime goal and 10/1 to grab the game’s opener is worth a go.
He got the first goal at the Etihad in a 2-1 defeat in December 2013, famously smashed in the winner in the 3-2 Liverpool win the following April, netted another deciding goal in the 2-1 win at Anfield a year ago and also tucked home the second goal in the 4-1 in November.
That’s four goals in his last five games against them. Coutinho is a big thorn in City’s side and I’m backing him to produce something special again at Wembley.
For more betting advice ahead of this weekend, check out TEAMtalk’s Capital One Cup final preview for Betsafe.
I absolutely love drinking in that feeling after a Cup final victory. The players are larking about with the fans, gleefully accepting scarves and hats tossed their way and singing celebratory songs really badly out of tune. These are the moments we, as fans, should absolutely treasure.
By contrast, the emptiness after a loss is horrible. There simply is no middle ground and that’s why Sunday really will make or break our season.
Unless of course……
Liverpool v Man Utd
I’ll be honest, I didn’t want to draw another Premier League side in the last 16 of the Europa League. This is Europe. We want to experience difference, not familiarity.
And yet, on another level, this is a very winnable tie and if we made the last eight….. who knows?
Yes, Man Utd have won the last four meetings but they’ve ridden their luck heavily in some of those and we’re due to turn them over.
But it’s their Manchester neighours who I’m bothered about for now.
So, in this season of wild contrasts and fluctuating emotions, I expect Sunday’s Wembley showdown with City to be nothing less than an absolute rollercoaster.