I’M with Jürgen Klopp. Manchester United can wait. A League Cup semi-final is a big game.
The truth about winning league titles is that you absolutely cannot win all of your games. You absolutely cannot play well for the duration. The key to winning league titles is not about winning ugly. Not about coveting every point as if it were going to be the last you ever saw. The essence of title wins is about making hay while the sun is shining for you. It is about a self-belief that you are the most worthy. That when you decide to ‘bring it’ that no-one will live with you.
I make no apologies for the following, because I am the age that I am, but I went to the school of league title winning. I meticulously followed Liverpool FC over the course of eight successful league-winning campaigns. I was also taking notes in a further half dozen in that period (the ‘70s and ‘80s), in which Liverpool mainly finished in second place. Gather round. Let me tell you how it was.
There were few defining games. There were many defining runs, though. There were lots of dropped points. Plenty of silly errors and enough bad days at the office. If there were landmark fixtures, they were only so in retrospect. They were not the clashes with the biggest rivals. The key fixtures were the ones in which Liverpool would put in a performance in which you could tell, smell, just sense, that they had kicked for home. Days that yielded wins, that in turn begat runs. Those days, when The Reds had collectively decided – maybe only on a subconscious level – that enough was enough. No more Mr Nice Guy.
United away on Sunday isn’t a red-letter day in this season. If it is anything but a draw it will feel like it, though. Hence the fear that its outcome will be decided by the flap of a butterfly’s wing. That the smallest margins will set Liverpool on course for number 19, or scuttle the good ship. One of the two. No possibility that it is just another game.
Liverpool have learned this lesson as recently as a week ago. No sooner had the basking in the glow of victory over erstwhile title faves Manchester City ebbed, than we were brought down to earth with the reality of that grimy make-do-with of a point at Sunderland. The thing about titles is, there are plenty of second chances available. It’s just that when you get round to taking them, take them decisively.
In the midst of the maelstrom of chasing down leagues, are the parallel realities of cup competitions. I’m at ease with accepting that some of these games are a bit worthier than others. It was correct – given how modern football works – that Klopp rested a full 11 for Plymouth’s weekend visit to Anfield. A League Cup semi-final is a different level of event, though. Liverpool do not need to be word-perfect on Wednesday night but they need to remain good enough to not lose to Southampton.
The Saints are no mugs, but they were terrified of us when we turned up at theirs for the league game in November. They concentrated for 95 minutes and kept us out by the skin of their teeth. On another day they might have been well beaten. That other day has arrived.
I want us to beat Southampton on Wednesday night, make the second leg a formality and then look forward to the biggest event of a League Cup final since Liverpool v United in 1983.
We ultimately measure out our years supporting our teams, not so much in trophies, but in great days. Liverpool v Manchester United in a Wembley final will be the best day. Or the worst day. If it is to be a triumphant one it will be a day we talk about for years to come. Even if we are to win this league – and what a thing that would be – we are unlikely to see any one day that will match the day we beat United in London. That’s not how leagues tend to work (plenty of noble exceptions to this rule, I concede).
The odds don’t favour a league title win. We have to accept that, however close we may feel we are. It would be nice to get as close as possible. Maybe a miss may feel like a mile again (as it did in 2014) but it would be nice to garnish this season with cup silverware, come what may in the league.
Winning is a great habit. We all say it a lot, but I’m not sure we stop to think about it enough. Klopp’s Liverpool are ready to become winners. The League Cup is an early opportunity to lay down the statement that Liverpool FC are very much in business this season. A League Cup trophy in late February will not win us any league points but it will aid our cause.
I think Klopp is thinking the way that I am. Doubt me, but don’t doubt him. He will go strong for Southampton. Expect it to be the strongest Liverpool 11 available to him. If he does want to afford himself one eye on the Old Trafford game at the weekend, then fate is lending a bit of a hand. Philippe Coutinho, Joel Matip and Jordan Henderson are not going to start at St Mary’s as they rehabilitate from injuries. It is also possible James Milner will not be risked from the beginning either.
This affords the manager a not inconsiderable freshen up at the weekend. If the above four don’t start at Southampton then we may see more of the weekend cup team than we might have in other circumstances. In his press conference, Klopp all but assured Loris Karius another go in goal. Alberto Moreno is experienced enough to deputise again for Milner as he gets himself just right for United. Emre Can, Gini Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana would seem near definites for the central midfield berths.
The forward positions – given Sadio Mane’s absence and Coutinho’s likely selection on the bench – look as good as confirmed for Daniel Sturridge, Divock Origi and Roberto Firmino. How these three will set up is unclear for now. Ten months ago, at St Mary’s, Origi and Sturridge formed as potent a Liverpool front two as we’d seen combine since Luis Suarez and Sturridge himself in 2014. If Klopp fancies pairing Origi and Sturridge again then Firmino will probably operate at the front of a 4-4-2 diamond.
Just how bold and how lucky Klopp feels will determine his detailed calls. Does he fancy going for an early knockout blow and putting the tie to bed – with all the incumbent risk entailed – or will he seek to flood the midfield and dominate Southampton from start to finish, as was the case last November? Much of his thinking may be in the second guessing of his opposite number’s selection. The home side will surely not be as conservative as they were last time out. It’s going to be a good game.
The trophy hunting red 11 to sin all over the Saints: Karius; Clyne, Lovren, Klavan, Moreno; Can, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Firmino, Origi, Sturridge.
Kick-off: 7.45pm (Live on Sky Sports 1)
Last season: Southampton 1 Liverpool 6
Referee: Neil Swarbrick
Odds: Southampton 66-25, Draw 51-20, Liverpool 5-4
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