Josh Sexton’s post-match review for The Anfield Wrap after Liverpool 2 Fulham 1 in the 2023-2024 League Cup semi-final…
A LEAGUE Cup semi final first leg at Anfield.
It’s been a strange week for Liverpool Football Club, in that it felt a bit like Sunday’s win in North London came to represent more in the bigger picture than just a fourth-round berth in the FA Cup.
The highs of that followed by the crushing blow of losing Trent Alexander-Arnold ensured a non-semi-final-like buildup to this particular occasion.
However, if you were in a boozer around Anfield before the game, the atmosphere was busy and lively enough to remind you of the sense of occasion that comes with going this deep into a competition.
If anything, the strange atmosphere felt in the days beforehand is as much a nod to the fact that ditching two-legged semis has been long overdue.
The Reds started the game a little bit like a team who didn’t realise they were in a League Cup semi final, but they can be forgiven due to the sheer amount of absentees and the lack of rhythm of some of the lads who have come in.
For the first 19 minutes, Liverpool had Fulham where they wanted them to an extent, until Virgil van Dijk’s rare error caused enough chaos in the ranks to upset whatever foundation this patched-up 11 felt that they had.
From there, Fulham became the much more comfortable of the two sides with the ebb and flow of the game. The Reds were ragged.
Our right-hand side particularly struggled, as much with their inability to cause Antonee Robinson any concern defensively, as they did with the American international’s pace and the evergreen trickery of Willian offensively.
Conor Bradley, Ryan Gravenberch and Harvey Elliott all worked really hard, but nothing would quite come off for them. I thought all three proved they had grown into the game more after half time, but the game was still crying out for something a bit different from Liverpool.
At the half, I was of the mind to take Gravenberch off, push Elliott back into what is looking an increasingly more comfortable midfield berth for him these days, move Luis Diaz to the right again and have Darwin Nunez stretch Fulham from the left.
What Klopp chose to do instead demonstrated the importance of having a squad full of players with differing skill sets, but also having a squad that oozes quality.
Because I mainly wanted the ragged Reds to find a way to turn their raggedness into a threat to Fulham’s comfortability, I was concerned that the introduction of Cody Gakpo — who at times is more a night at the opera than heavy-metal football — wouldn’t be enough to trouble the away side.
I was so pleased to be wrong, but I was so pleased too that the introduction of Nunez alongside him flipped the game on its head to the extent that it did.
Because as the Uruguayan stretched the opposition by constantly getting to the byline and turning their defenders inside out and then back again, he opened the game up for the elegance of Gakpo and the electricity of Diaz.
The deflected goal from Curtis Jones became no more than his now-trademark Gini Wijnaldum-esque performance deserved — and there was something really quite former Liverpool number five about the goal itself, as it broke the deadlock in a scrappy yet warranted way.
While Nunez gets the assist for the first, it’s the second where he really shows the impact he can have on the ceiling of this side, and suddenly his heavy metal sounds harmonised perfectly with the stillness and composure of Gakpo’s operatic abilities.
I adored the performances of all three goal contributors, and only wished that the man who ended the night with two assists had the goal that he so desires every time he’s on the pitch.
I adored how Bradley grew into the game, to the point that he had gone from causing Robinson no problems to having him back-pedalling and stumbling around the edge of his own box. The increase in stature radiating from him with every attack.
I adored another sumptuous Alexis Mac Allister performance, another Joe Gomez left-back masterclass, and a rock solid night from Caoimhin Kelleher — who I’m convinced has more ability with his feet than most of his number at this level, with barrels of composure to go with it. Another nod to big squads that ooze quality and different skill sets, if you ask me.
If The Reds started the game like a side who weren’t entirely aware they were in a League Cup semi final, there was little doubt inside Anfield by the end of the game.
Liverpool’s squad, the manager’s substitutions, the patterns of football games, and lads growing in stature all came to the party once again.
I hope we can have even more of the best of our lads at the next party, because if we love rising to the big occasion now, we’re going to love what’s right around the corner for us even more.
Bring on all yer fronts.