THESE are the moments. Let’s not deny it to ourselves. Why the game got us. Why we became locked into its ways and wiles. We’re always in it for the prizes. Scaling peaks is what sport is all about.
Don’t decry any summit. A challenge is a challenge. We have risen to meet the League Cup this season, and our day out in a freezing sun-kissed Wembley will be our reward.
It doesn’t matter how the world outside views the contest between Manchester City and the Mighty Reds of Liverpool FC. Locked in that Wembley bowl, with all souls’ spines tingling, and nerves shredding, only us and them will matter.
Cup finals are the times when you can truly relinquish the secret guilt of supporter passivity. In finals we are never merely spectators. We aren’t just vicarious voyeurs. We are part of a whole. In a neutral ground, we arrive as a horde to make our colour dominate their colour. We are individually small, but en masse we are legion. It’s an enormous feeling.
There is something undeniably Roman about the whole experience. The expansive approaches to Wembley demand marching, flag-waving and singing. It isn’t just turning up for the match. Your very presence is a statement. And the Reds are particularly good at doing Wembley. If you know your history.
Liverpool FC don’t usually go to Wembley as underdogs. Maybe it’s because we never feel like underdogs.
Like the 2012 FA Cup final, when we faced a big Chelsea team, we’re again up against it in all practical senses. The Manchester City side we will face on Sunday, though shorn through injuries as a squad, is still very much the country’s best 11, on paper at least.
Let there be no doubt. This is a big cup final to win this year. There’s no diminishing what an achievement it would represent to beat Manchester City on this stage. Of course they are inconsistent and vulnerable, but so too are Real Madrid. You still wouldn’t routinely want to meet either in a dark alley. Both have it in them to give any side a proper going over.
Manchester City will be nervous. That is our angle.
They’ve tasted two bad defeats at Liverpool hands in the past 12 months. At Anfield, near enough this time last year, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho scored goals of the season and Joe Allen ground and pressed fragile opponents into tame surrender.
At their gaff in November it was even worse for the Blues. Jürgen Klopp unleashed his striker-free formation and the home side didn’t know what had hit them. Roberto Firmino, Coutinho and Adam Lallana had a ball. Liverpool walked it into the net — all night long.
Manuel Pellegrini is in the last weeks of a creditable reign with the country’s wealthiest club. He is a man with little left to lose — his job has gone — and even in better times he knew little better than to send out a team to attack at will. He will want to sign out with a flurry of silverware but probably wants to do it in some style, too.
The talk ahead of Sunday will be the extent to which he may or may not be tempted to curb gung-ho instincts.
The real Manuel wants to partner Sergio Aguero with fellow striker Kelechi Iheanacho. The conscience on his shoulder may remind him of what happened when he allowed Liverpool weight of numbers in midfield.
His usually suppressed inner caution my scream at him to be sensible and throw a third central midfielder in. Selecting the defensive anchor Fernando may inhibit Coutinho and Firmino’s ambition to boss the spaces between the lines.
Whatever part of the manager’s pysche wins out, he will regardless have firepower that most can only dream of.
Aguero, Raheem Sterling and David Silva gave an exhibition in opening a defence up in midweek (against Kiev), and did so whilst never getting into a top gear. Liverpool will look to impede the supply to these three, because once the line is breached and they’re loose it will be every man (defender) for himself.
Klopp will tell his Liverpool squad that the momentum is with them. The team is showing signs of finding its true level again. The Liverpool front three we expect for Wembley can hold their heads up in the company of City’s star names.
Firmino is now showing glimpses of being world class. The Wembley setting would be an occasion to conform the suspicion. Coutinho is still shaking off the cobwebs of an interrupted campaign and if his hamstrings don’t let him down again he may well prove himself the game’s big player.
Stressing Daniel Sturridge’s importance to modern Liverpool can be set on a tape loop — it’s getting dull. It doesn’t stop being true though. He’s a striker at a level Liverpool FC can’t buy at the moment. His kind are neither available nor affordable.
It is why he has been the recurrent topic of virtually every press conference Jurgen Klopp has had to host at Melwood.
Sturridge looked sparky and fresh against Augsburg on Thursday. His annoyance at being hauled off on 60 mins wasn’t feigned outrage. He knew — perhaps for the first time in a long while — that he had more in the tank. It is a hugely encouraging sign for Klopp and Liverpool.
The rest of the Liverpool side also more or less picks itself
Klopp will have less regard for fatigue concerns than Pellegrini. Lucas apart, the team that starts at Wembley will be the one that was selected to face Augsburg. Kolo Toure may come back in to stare out his brother Yaya in the City team. Dejan Lovren is recovering from injury and illness and could have a shout, too.
The substitutes’ bench may be more significant than many might first imagine. City may have the majority of their first choice 11 available, but injuries have decimated their squad.
Fabian Delph, Samir Nasri and Kevin De Bruyne are out and Wilfried Bony and Jesus Navas are unlikely to feature. Liverpool have fitness concerns, too, but if Adam Lallana and Jordon Ibe can recover in time to sit alongside Christian Benteke, then if the match goes into extra time, Liverpool could be set fair.
The bookies see City as unambiguous favourites for this cup. It seems in reality harder to call than the odds might imply.
City have more good players than Liverpool. Liverpool have looked a better team than City. The individual against the collective will. Goliath against David? Not really.
City know they don’t even have one finger on the League Cup just yet. And of course there’s the Red Army. Ready, primed, and Wembley-bound again.
The Reds are coming down the M6 boys. We’ll see you in the service stations and on the Way.
The team (fingers crossed) to bring back home number nine: Mignolet; Clyne, Toure, Sakho, Moreno; Can, Henderson, Milner; Coutinho, Firmino, Sturridge.
Additional pics: PA Images