Why is this still being the exciting?

It goes by many names down through the years. The League Cup. The Carling Cup. The Capital One Cup. The EFL Cup. The Carabao Cup. But, as I’ve mentioned here several times before, for the last couple decades I’ve referred to it as the WITSBP Cup (Why Is This Still Being Played?) because it represents a form of piling on in the most congested period of the football calendar for a trophy that means next-to-nothing anymore. Back in the day, winning it got you into one of the chintziest of European competitions (The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) and then it used to get you into the Europa League, despite the winner almost always qualifying for the Champions League because of PL position. Now it gets you into the Europa Conference League(!) and still is a hunk of silver and a grand prize of £100,000. Just for comparison, Liverpool makes 28 times that amount for winning one Champions League group game. Liverpool also makes over £500,000 every month from YouTube views. So, there’s still not much to get excited about in a pragmatic sense.

Many people will think that that’s why Jürgen Klopp supposedly doesn’t try very hard when it comes to winning the thing. There was outrage on Twitter at the lineup for this quarterfinal, given that it included the regular host of backups, but also a couple of the young’uns who don’t normally even fit into the bench lineup, like Billy Koumetio and Conor Bradley. The only regular starters on the pitch to start the match were Roberto Firmino and Captain Jordan Henderson. But that’s what happens when you’re missing nine players to COVID or injury, you just played a game on Sunday, and play another this coming Sunday. Furthermore, given Jürgen’s desire to develop players from the academy, rather than spending the GDP of a Persian Gulf nation every summer, it makes sense to continue including the kids who need game time and are among those who got the club to a quarterfinal in the first place. Anyone watching the manager after today’s win would see how excited he was and, clearly, how much he wants to win this competition in the same way that he wants to win every competition. Besides, our putting the C team on the field just made the comparison with Leicester putting their normal starting XI out there that much funnier.

And, for all that I dismiss the importance of the thing, it is another competition and I do want to win every game that Liverpool plays, just like Jürgen. That made this match just as exciting as almost any we’ve played this season, especially having to come back from 2-0 down and 3-1 down and getting the equalizer to send it to penalties in the 95th minute. The fact that that equalizer was scored by Takumi Minamino (4 goals now in this season’s WITSBP Cup) against a side that was wasting time for the entire second half while we put them under siege, with their fans singing a regular chorus of “Feed the Scousers!”, just made it that much better. On top of that, the non-regular crowd tonight was easily- EASILY -the best crowd I’ve heard at Anfield in the last couple years. These were fans that were thrilled to be there, even while we were two goals down after the first thirteen minutes. They never stopped cheering and were loud enough to remind me of the Barcelona win in 2019. This is what we need in every match and, of course, utterly belies my casual disdain for the trophy at hand. Do these people know better than I do about what’s actually important in the game? Maybe so. Or maybe they, like me, are just excited to see our guys on the pitch and winning games, no matter what label is attached to it. Do I want to play two semifinals in the first two weeks of January? No. But will I want to win both of them when they happen? Of course. This is Liverpool and this is what we do.

Liverpool 3(5) – 3(4) Leicester City

On the one hand, it’s easy to suggest that we ended up down, 3-1, at the half because Billy and Joe Gomez, both of whom had been battling injuries and hadn’t played regular football in a year-and-a-half, were rusty (the latter) or simply not accustomed to the speed of the game (the former), especially against a side with a number of speedy options to get in behind. Jamie Vardy is only the most notorious of them. On the other hand, we still played them pretty closely in the first half, in terms of possession, chances, and controlling the speed of the match. When multiple changes were made at the half (bringing on James Milner Robot Warrior, Diogo Jota, and Ibrahima Konaté), it was clear that Jürgen was upping the pressure and the team responded in spectacular fashion. From that point forward, Leicester’s end of the pitch was under siege and it was only a matter of time before our 22-8 shooting advantage, 2-1 possession advantage, and 15-2(!) corner advantage paid off. It really was like an artillery barrage on a fortress not able to fight back, as cross after corner went hurtling into the Leicester box and a lot of scrambling had to be done to preserve their lone advantage on the scoreline. Yes, I know that’s the advantage that makes all the difference. But it was mildly ridiculous to watch just how dominant we were in the second half and, in turn, how willing Leicester were to weasel their way out of a game (time-wasting, etc.) that they had clearly set up to contest with the strongest lineup available to them. Key to that dominance was Bob:

As always, he kept the ball moving and to the right people, delivering the perfect cutback to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for our opening goal, but also being heavily involved in Diogo’s goal and continually involving Kostas Tsimikas on the left, which kept Youri Tielemans from having greater influence in the middle of the pitch and frequently forcing Wilfred Ndidi out of his preferred static orbit inside the box. That also made space for Takumi Minamino:

He was constantly harassing Leicester’s back line and, flat out, that goal in the 95th minute was brilliant; chesting it down in front of two defenders and delivering it to the far corner. That’s the kind of play that will get him more consideration for regular rotation up front.

Not so stats-obvious were the impacts made by Ibrahima, who continued his excellent play by reinforcing the rocky Joe Gomez and making Vardy disappear from the moment Ibra set foot on the pitch (just like the other Ibra(himovich)!), as well as Naby Keita’s excellent performance. It was clear that Hendo was still recovering from his ferocious cold that kept him out of the Tottenham match as, while he played well, he wasn’t his usual transformative self. Naby came in and locked down the middle third while opening up chances that helped produce the two goals we needed. It’s not outrageous to suggest that both of them transformed the game when they came in.

And, again, I have to say something about the crowd. I know it’s possible for long-time fans and/or regular season-ticket holders to become a bit jaded with what they’re seeing, especially when the team is performing well and we’re demolishing yet another nominally-Premier League side at Anfield. But this crowd was loud as hell even when we were down 3-1 and only got louder when the comeback was on and the clock ticked down. One of the little upsides of these domestic cup competitions is that a lot of tickets go to people who aren’t regular attendees at Anfield. Those people are what made James Maddison call it the “best atmosphere in England” tonight. I know it wouldn’t be right to excise the long-timers who simply don’t get that loud any longer, but I wish there were some way to keep the energy from this relatively meaningless game and inject it into the next league match, given that the PL has become something of a knockout tournament itself.

That was one of the best matches of the season: end-to-end play, a thrilling comeback, and some excellent performances by guys we see all the time (Bob) and those we don’t (Caomhin Kelleher.) Like last year’s match against Arsenal, it certainly lends weight to the argument to keep playing the Irrelevant Cup. Next up, we have Leeds at Anfield before facing these same Foxes at the King Power two days later. The insanity continues. Meanwhile, enjoy Diogo’s pointed response to the “feed the Scousers” assholes:

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