And you shall know us by the trail of sponsors. The League Cup has always been a bird-on-a-wire kind of thing. Every year this fond old springtime ritual is menaced and marginalised and threatened with ever more imminent extinction, but still people keep turning up in February and March asking where the party is.
The title branding tells a story of that picaresque progress. In the space of 40 years, English football’s second-string domestic cup has gone from the quiet gravitas of being named after the entire Football League, through Coca-Cola, beer, electrical goods and the generic liquid “milk” into a holding pattern of insurance and financial products and now on to its current iteration as the global face of Thailand’s second-most popular energy drink.
And still it marches on, enduringly popular with the people who actually go to watch and a genuinely mouthwatering prospect as Chelsea and Liverpool prepare to meet at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. This time around the headline branding looks spot-on. A perfect fit for a fizzy, colourful, fun kind of day, a little left-field but with its own peppy sense of fun; not to mention, on this occasion, a little caffeinated ignition. Not least for Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, a great club team still in the process of writing their own story as a great club team, who really could do with winning this one.
Liverpool won this competition four years in a row from 1981 to 1984 and, filtered though those grainy, glorious tight-shorted years of triumph, it feels like the touchtone for any great Liverpool winning era.
Is this one yet? It is a deliberately provocative question. But there is a kind of disjunction here. Klopp has created a thrillingly well-grooved elite team. But the hard fact remains. Liverpool have won two trophies – the two biggest ones – in the past decade. Should Chelsea win Thomas Tuchel will have lifted as many trophies in his single year in west London as Klopp has in six at Liverpool.
This is, of course, an unfair comparison. A Carabao Cup is some way short of a first Premier League title in two decades. Tuchel started with the levels set vertiginously high, with no bar on squad depth and financial resources, whereas Klopp has built an era at Liverpool from a low base, building an entire way of playing, an energy, a sense of connection. But the fact remains Sunday will be his first domestic cup final since defeat by Manchester City in this competition in his first season.
This is what Klopp is missing, for all his headline successes; a sense of rolling background glory, the knockout cups, the days out, the annual pageantry of the great winning teams. Klopp stands alongside Pep Guardiola as the greatest Premier League coach of his era when it comes to vibes, uplift, team-building, the energising of an entire club. The next three months will offer the chance to balance the ledger.
As things stand Liverpool have a chance to win four trophies this season. That sounds fanciful. It almost certainly won’t happen. And yet … there are a maximum of 23 games remaining in Liverpool’s season: Twenty-three games to win them all. Or at least to get as close as possible. That still sounds like a lot of games. But look back and the past 23 have brought one defeat and 18 wins including the current run of nine in a row. Repeat that run from this point, just keep on keeping on, and they can win all four trophies.
It is, of course, not that easy. Sustaining that level over 23 games is normal elite team behaviour. Stretching it to 46 across a run of high stakes do-or-die affairs would be truly rare. Plus, the opposition also have a say. The past 23 games have brought Burnley, Cardiff, Brentford, Norwich, Shrewsbury and Everton. The next 23? Well, here comes everyone. In the way from here are Chelsea, West Ham, Arsenal, Manchester United, Manchester City, Tottenham and, on the final day of the league season, Wolves, plus some combination of Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus in the Champions League.
This is a genuine, high-stakes, brilliantly fun-looking path towards some kind of glory, a moment not to blink or look down. It starts with a Carabao Cup final that could fulfil two complementary needs: a shot of nitroglycerine for the season’s run-in; plus a little glory-padding, some ballast to back up an already distinct and identifiable era.
Klopp does have a thing with domestic cups. Mainly, he’s won one of them, the DFB-Pokal 10 years ago with Borussia Dortmund. Tuchel has three. Guardiola has nine. Brendan Rodgers has six. There is no obvious logic to this, other than the fact Klopp has tended to manage teams with more trimmed-back squads. Dortmund had to compete with the superior playing riches of Bayern. Liverpool have been about intense focus, pared-back strengths, a settled first XI. And it is here that promises a fascinating contrast of styles. There is a tendency to lump Tuchel and Klopp together: angular, articulate Germans who trod the same early club football path, a bit of Ralf Rangnick stuff, a sense of pressing, choreographed intensity, tracksuit-clad rage, a hat, ankle-fit tracksuit trousers.
In reality, Klopp and Tuchel never met at Mainz or Dortmund. These were genuine successions, one out, one in. They’ve had dinner now and then, met at functions, but are “not super-close”, in Tuchel’s words. And they are quite different in their net tactical effect. Tuchel wants control. Klopp wants to create energy, to overload and overwhelm. Tuchel fixates on certain areas, obsessing over the timing and execution of turnovers in a clearly defined band of space in the opponent’s half. Klopp wants to run you into the ground. Tuchel is a tactical omnivore, varying his method to his resources. Klopp has a system. If you can’t live with it he’ll find someone who can.
The key battles will play out on these lines. Liverpool’s strengths are obvious. Chelsea’s task is to shut down Mohamed Salah’s influence, to mitigate a potential mismatch with Marcos Alonso on the left flank. Tuchel must also contemplate once again the fall of Rom. Kai Havertz offers more and is a better footballer, better suited to Tuchel’s system. But Romelu Lukaku is a £90m centre-forward with a goal record light years beyond anyone else in his squad and this final is likely to be decided on very small margins.
Whatever the result the beleaguered old League Cup – still a fan’s favourite for what that’s worth (very little) – will struggle on into another year. This is a delicious-looking final. For Klopp, and Liverpool, its effects could be profound.