SUNDAY’S Capital One Cup final feels a bit of a weird one.
A one-off showpiece occasion, with Liverpool slight underdogs against the financial might of moneybags Manchester City. And yet, it lacks the edge of a clash with more traditional rivals; the existence of any real enmity towards City all a bit forced.
There isn’t the social and cultural conflict of the rivalry with the dirtier clan of nouveau riche, Chelsea; nor the combined historical and geographical competition between The Reds and Everton or Manchester United.
For supporters of a certain vintage, “Citeh” remain something of a joke. Perhaps that is a legacy of the Reds regularly putting hapless, washed-out sky blue shirts to the sword at the old Maine Road throughout our halcyon days.
Despite being propelled to the summit of English football; financially doped by Arab riches to two recent Premier League titles (after over 40 years in the shadow of their neighbours), Manchester City remain — albeit at a higher level — as flaky as ever.
Throughout their wilderness years, fans used to complain of “Cityitis”, an ailment which guaranteed calamity and routinely clutched defeat from the jaws of victory as they yo-yoed between divisions and even plumbed depths of the third tier in 1998.
Never was a bout of “City-itis” more acute than in 1996 when in the last game of the season, manager Alan Ball misread the significance of scores elsewhere while his team was drawing with Liverpool during the closing minutes.
He instructed his players to play keep-ball at 2-2 when another goal was required to avoid the drop, and City duly went down.
Despite the biggest outlay on players in the league, City remain incapable of the consistency and character that brought domestic dominance to Liverpool and United. In Europe, creating an atmosphere at a soulless Etihad Stadium to scale the gap between themselves and the continent’s finest on Champions League nights has proved impossible.
Ironically, City fans were famed for loyalty and passion throughout the barren years, but the latter day Premier League era has seen the ardour and makeup of their fan base suffer as much as at any traditional big club.
“We’re not really here….” sing the Sky Blues, and at times it sounds like they aren’t. “Blue Moon”, a mournful song of romance, hope and better times ahead, adopted in the early 1990s as a modern-day City anthem, seems out of keeping with a cash-rich institution hiring the world’s best players and managers.
How long they remain committed though, without mercenary forces taking over, to a cause that struggles with its identity is open to question.
By contrast, Liverpool FC’s enduring strongest suit — at least in the stands — is identity; never better expressed in the emotion and colour of a Liverpool cup final end bedecked with flags and banners.
In the past, we’ve owned these occasions and made cup finals seems like home games. If the red shirt occasionally wears heavy on the shoulders of the meek, it can also inspire on the biggest stage when the odds seem stacked against us.
It is this that gives us hope. In our recent history, we’ve worn the tag of underdog best.
On the face of it, considering City’s lingering the Premier League and Champions League challenge, Sunday’s final appears a bigger game for Liverpool.
Several players stand at a crossroads as the Jürgen Klopp era takes shape amid a theme of inconsistency. City’s array of proven, if mercurial, talent contrasts with a Liverpool squad lacking in star quality that will be under review at the end of the season.
Motivation shouldn’t be a problem but fitness and stamina concerns still surround the Reds’ best players — Daniel Sturridge, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson.
Futures hang in the balance, not least in the shape of Mamadou Sakho, Simon Mignolet, and the old stager, Lucas Leiva.
Potential remains unfulfilled in the feet of Alberto Moreno, Emre Can, Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino as they seek to impress and stake a claim to be part of Klopp’s longer-term plans.
A stand-out performance with silverware, the real currency of football at stake can act as a springboard for an extended Liverpool career. Just ask Ronnie Whelan, the emergent two-goal hero of the epic 1982 League Cup win over Spurs.
For the manager himself, despite the early promise of the emphatic 4-1 away league victory over Sunday’s opponents in November, the subsequent four months have felt something of a trial.
Dogged by injuries, an illness of his own, a bloated fixture list (which finally shows signs of easing) and a lack of firepower, the sense of Klopp euphoria and bonding with supporters that marked his arrival has been dimmed just a little by a dog of a league season.
Understandably, he isn’t quite the ebullient figure we warmed to back in the autumn but his stock among the fans remains undiminished.
Each performance illustrating a new-found understanding of his tactical methods and requirement for work-rate has been followed by a show of ineptness and lack of intensity
No punches have been pulled in post-match briefings; an apparent frustration a pointer to the German’s dissatisfaction with his players. For every riotous touchline celebration, there has been a vexed or quizzical look and raised eye-brow.
Wembley on Sunday is an opportunity not just to reinvigorate and cement Klopp’s relationship with Liverpool’s travelling army of fans, but to demonstrate his motivational powers and tactical acumen against an astute counterpart armed with heavier artillery.
At Borussia Dortmund, Klopp excelled in the cup-tie environment of the Champions League against more heralded opponents and if the German can again get the better of a departing Manuel Pellegrini it will be a real feather in his cap.
Wembley is all about occasion; a place for the showman, and the chance to impart his presence and personality on proceedings should be right up his street. Watching him bring energy and his own brand of lunacy to the Wembley touchline should be fascinating and a right hoot.
In an early interview at Melwood, Klopp described his managerial style as “energetic, emotional” but there is far more to him than that.
He will be mindful of a plan to nullify David Silva at the heart of City’s passing triangles and cut the supply to Sergio Aguero. Liverpool will need to soak up pressure and counter effectively.
We can’t expect City to be as careless and profligate in possession, deep in their own half, when Liverpool pressed them to death earlier in the season. It will be interesting to see if City choose to release the ball earlier from defence and if Liverpool can capitalise on forcing them to abandon their normal careful build-up.
The League Cup, in its current Capital One guise, is often decried for its inconvenience and rank as the least prestigious trophy on offer. However, cup finals seldom exist in isolation within the tapestry of a football club’s history and Sunday is no different. Careers can be forged, or ruined. The scent of success and silverware can linger; a winning mentality established overnight.
The biggest criticism of this Liverpool squad, assembled under the previous regime, is that it is imbued with the spirit of losers.
Klopp’s own words spoke of his initial challenge in turning “doubters into believers” and on Sunday we get the first chance to witness if he’s winning that battle.