It’d be fair to say that, for supporters of clubs like Liverpool whose sights are set on challenging for the Premier League title, the Carabao Cup is often regarded as the lowest trophy on the season’s priority list.
Winning it won’t define the legacy of a campaign, nor does an early knockout place any great dampener if other major silverware is secured domestically or in Europe.
However, as with cup competitions in general, teams who make it to the quarter-finals may change their perspective and see a tremendous opportunity opening up in front of them.
That’s most certainly the case for Liverpool and the Carabao Cup this season.
A roll call of the eight teams remaining in the tournament has some notable absentees. Both Manchester clubs are gone, as are north London rivals Arsenal and Tottenham, along with two of the other top seven in the Premier League in Aston Villa and Brighton.
Indeed, the only other clubs currently in the top half of the uppermost tier of English football who can still win the trophy in February are Newcastle and Chelsea, who face each other in the quarter-finals.
Liverpool are the highest-placed team left in the competition. That doesn’t by any means guarantee they’ll go on to triumph at Wembley – just look at the calibre of teams who’ve already been knocked out – but it does leave them with a glorious opportunity to negotiate only four more matches to have something tangible to show for the season before March begins.
A home tie against West Ham will be a tricky one, but the Reds have done a very good job of finding a way to win matches this term without always being at their free-flowing best. Last week’s hard-fought success at the windswept Vitality Stadium – secured by a stupendous Darwin Nunez goal – was proof positive of that.
The timing of that quarter-final tie could be better from an LFC point of view – it falls between the Premier League showdowns against Manchester United and Arsenal – although the impressive selection of players at Klopp’s disposal should allow him to make a plethora of changes without greatly weakening the starting XI.
Trying to predict the line-up for a match which is still six weeks away is foolhardy at best, but for argument’s sake in assuming that we have a full squad on 20 December aside from the long-term absentees, the Liverpool XI to face West Ham could look something like this:
Kelleher – Gomez, Matip, Quansah, Tsimikas – Endo, Jones, Elliott – Doak, Gakpo, Jota
Obviously there are some big names missing from that hypothetical line-up, but you’d probably still back that team to get the job done against the Irons. Of course, there could also be the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Stefan Bajcetic and Conor Bradley back fit by then.
Without being disingenuous to the other seven teams who could still win the Carabao Cup, Liverpool could legitimately view themselves as the favourites to go all the way at this point. Right now it represents the lowest-hanging fruit in terms of lifting silverware this season, so why not go for it when we’re this close?
Even with the United and Arsenal games on either side of the quarter-final, there’s a strong possibility that the Reds could have first place in their Europa League group sewn up by the time they travel to face Union Saint-Gilloise the previous week.
That’d be Klopp’s perfect opportunity to give all his first-team regulars a night off and ensure he has adequate squad depth to negotiate the pre-Christmas triple header at Anfield.
Liverpool fans, players and management celebrated unreservedly when we won the Carabao Cup two seasons ago, even when there was a firm possibility of adding three more trophies by the campaign’s end.
Why wouldn’t we go all-out to enjoy that feeling once more at the end of February, especially when so many of the big guns have already been taken out?