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Jurgen Klopp’s youngsters leave Chelsea with a billion regrets after late Carabao Cup victory

Chelsea 0-1 Liverpool: Jurgen Klopp’s youngsters snatched a late victory against the Blues’ expensive stars

Richard Jolly
at Wembley
Sunday 25 February 2024 18:39 GMT
Klopp and Van Dijk lift League Cup trophy after Liverpool win in extra time

By the end, it was the sort of side only seen on the pitch together in pre-season friendlies. There was Jayden Danns, James McConnell and Bobby Clark, who have two first-team starts for Liverpool between them. And they were taking on Chelsea, flush from spending £1bn, in the most expensive makeover in footballing history.

But money couldn’t buy Chelsea a trophy or the spirit, ambition and resolve of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side. The first silverware of the season, the first of a possible quadruple, went to the kindergarten Klopps, to the kids who left Chelsea with a billion regrets. This was another example of Klopp’s ability to script the improbable. The last chapters in his story may be as astonishing as some of the earlier ones.

But even as some of his senior figures watched on, with their crutches, in their knee braces, nursing their various wounds, Liverpool powered on, courtesy of their inspirational captain. Virgil van Dijk has his first honour since replacing Jordan Henderson as skipper. He earned it, too: with a colossal performance, holding a makeshift team together, with the only goal. He had one header disallowed earlier. Yet, if Chelsea only had one man to mark at set-pieces, they failed to do it: Ben Chilwell was culpable when Van Dijk met Andy Robertson’s free kick with a thumping header; an offside decision against Wataru Endo, and a VAR ruling, denied him. Yet when another Liverpool left-back, Kostas Tsimikas, curled in a corner, Van Dijk beat the £88m Mykhailo Mudryk to it and headed in.

Van Dijk celebrated his goal surrounded by Liverpool’s triumphant youngsters (AP)

It amounted to an illustration of the fresh ways Chelsea find to embarrass themselves. They were humiliated at Anfield 25 days earlier, hammered 4-1. This was a different kind of shame: granted a golden opportunity to claim silverware by Liverpool’s debilitating injury list, to the substitutions that meant this was closer to a C-team than a B-team, Chelsea showed little willingness to take it. The best player for a £1bn project was Conor Gallagher, who cost nothing. None of their players bounced around in extra time with the enthusiasm of Danns. McConnell looked more likely to pick a pass than them. It was as though they were scared of players they had never heard of.

The Todd Boehly era remains a complete failure. There may be eventual repercussions for Mauricio Pochettino, who still has not won silverware in English football. Now Chelsea are likelier to face the prospect of another season without European football.

Liverpool scarcely need the prize of a place in the Europa Conference League – they will achieve far more than that – but, galvanised by adversity, they forged memories that will last long after Klopp’s departure.

And, besides Van Dijk and the rookies, Liverpool’s players rose to the occasion. There was the brilliance of Caoimhin Kelleher, the understudy who looked unbeatable. The rampaging Luis Diaz assumed more responsibility in the absence of his usual attacking sidekicks, with Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez among the missing. Wataru Endo and Alexis Mac Allister, the senior figures in midfield, were terrific.

They lost Ryan Gravenberch, stretchered off to become Liverpool’s 12th injured player, after a clumsy tackle by Moises Caicedo, which meant Conor Bradley had to be redeployed as a right winger. The odds then seemed stacked against Liverpool: yet, even as penalties beckoned for a team with no penalty takers left, when this threatened to be a repeat of the two 0-0 draws in their finals in 2022, Van Dijk struck from the 42nd attempt of an epic game.

Liverpool’s late goal proved the winner in a close-fought final (Reuters)

Lacking so many players, Liverpool were unable to subject Chelsea to an all-out assault, while there was a certain cautiousness to Pochettino’s team: the league table suggested they were underdogs, but the casualty list afforded them an opportunity. They showed insufficient belief.

Yet they encountered a formidable opponent. There were two magnificent point-blank saves by Kelleher, the first to keep out Cole Palmer’s half-volley, matched only by Endo’s flying block to stop Nicolas Jackson from scoring the rebound. The second, more than an hour later, denied Gallagher. Klopp had promised Kelleher he would play even before Alisson was injured. The Irishman rewarded his manager, a double save from Palmer and Christopher Nkunku another illustration that Wembley rather suits Liverpool’s hero of the 2022 final. Yet if he needed to excel more than Djordje Petrovic, the Serbian made a wonderful stop in the 116th minute to keep out Harvey Elliott’s downward header.

They matched each other in some respects. Both had a goal ruled out. Both struck the woodwork. Chelsea’s celebrations were briefer than Liverpool’s when they found the net. Raheem Sterling converted Nicolas Jackson’s low cross, but it was ruled out for the tightest of offsides. Then Van Dijk saw his effort chalked off. The foot of the post also prevented a breakthrough, when Cody Gakpo headed Robertson’s cross and Gallagher latched on to Cole Palmer’s low centre.

Gakpo had gone off when the teenager Danns had a header tipped over by Petrovic. The rookie didn’t get the winner, but he did get a winner’s medal. And Chelsea, who could not beat a glorified youth team, only had themselves to blame.

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