Back to back home league defeats to title rivals Leicester and Tottenham, plus an FA Cup humiliation at Stamford Bridge had fans fearing the worst, however, Manchester City’s emphatic 1-3 Champions League Victory, against Dynamo Kiev, has gone a long way in tightening up wheels that looked in real danger of coming off. With progression all but assured Manuel Pellegrini can assign his undivided attention to Sunday’s League Cup final.
The League Cup is often derided as the FA Cup’s sickly brother, it is however a tournament that the Chilean gaffer has taken seriously, beating Sunderland 3-1 in the 2014 edition.
While many see the tournament as either a set of fixtures that clutter an already busy schedule or an opportunity to give fringe players a rare outing, there is the contrasting mode of thinking that a victory can be used as a springboard to greater success.
The 2005 cup win was the platform that Jose Mourinho used to build his Chelsea Empire upon, and a year later Manchester United’s triumph was the catalyst that inspired three successive league titles, as well as the Champions League. It offered the first addictive taste of success for youngsters like Ronaldo and Rooney. Liverpool fans will be hoping that a victory at the weekend can kick-start a similar era of success for Jürgen Klopp.
With both sides competing in Europe midweek there have been murmurs that the sides will be fatigued, Liverpool’s maniacal gaffer expressed his dissenting opinion, saying “They will be fit. We will be fit. It is a final and no-one cares where you played your last game.”
Liverpool, having had their name engraved into the trophy eight times, are the most successful side in the tournament’s history, their last triumph coming in the 2012 season when a Kenny Dalglish led outfit overcame Cardiff on penalties. Having dismantled Manchester City 1-4 at the Etihad earlier in the season, Klopp will no doubt fancy his side’s chances at Wembley.
Below are three key battles that may determine the destination of the season’s first trophy.
1. Sahko vs Aguero
As more and more Premier League talent is lured to the dazzling lights of Spain’s Big Two, it is refreshing to see that the division still boasts a player capable of leading the line for any side in world football. Aguero’s speed of thought is matched only by rapid manoeuvring of his feet.
When the Argentine is absent from the side the Citizens look devoid of purpose, when he is fit and firing however, the ball is drawn to him like a drunk to a kebab shop. To combat such a fearsome threat Liverpool will rely largely upon the French colossus, Mohammed Sahko. Anyone who has watched Liverpool in recent weeks will have been treated to a rare slice of comic excellence.
The defensive partnership of Kolo Toure and Mohamed Sahko have at times treated opposition long balls as though they were armed nuclear bombs, making their deadly decent. The pair have stopped just short of clasping their hands behind their heads and running to the sanctuary of the dugout, hiding behind Klopp like a couple of errant schoolboys.
While a battle with Aguero probably will not involve too much of an aerial bombardment, Sahko will have to be fully focussed for the final’s duration – something he rarely looks capable of.
2. Yaya Toure vs Jordan Henderson
The centre of the park, and its domination, has always gone some distance to determine who will carry the day. Competing in the engine room in the final will be two men who have been subject to a fair amount of criticism; Henderson’s temperament and technical ability have been compared poorly against Liverpool skippers of yesteryear and Yaya Toure has always had his game spread into two distinct categories; his ability and his application.
When he is fully engaged Toure can be a force of nature, a real hurricane of a player capable of casting opponents to the side with a simple shrug, whilst maintaining the composure to dispatch an assured finish – his late goal midweek in Kiev was just the latest example in a long line. However, when things are not going his side’s way and he is forced to wipe the sweat from his brow, the towering Ivorian has the annoying tendency to shuffle about the park like the old man from the Disney film Up.
If Jordan Henderson can bustle around Toure as busy as a bee late for his shift at the hive, then there is the very real possibility that he can shake Manchester City out of their accustomed rhythm.
3. Vincent Kompany vs Daniel Sturridge
For both sides, their campaigns have been hampered by losing their key players for large swathes of the season. City, who looked nigh impregnatable in the year’s first few games have proved to be easier to conquer than a castle made of sand in his absence.
The defensive pairing of Otamendi and Mangala has looked nervous at best, and downright calamitous anytime Demichelis enters the fray. While Kompany is not the best central defender in the world, and at times looks too bulky and cumbersome, he does inspire a massively increased level of confidence in his teammates. From Joe Hart in goal, to Manuel Pellegrini in the dugout and even up to the fans in the stand, a sense of tranquillity is filtered throughout the club.
It is in this serenity that City play their best football, it will most likely fall to the recently recuperated Daniel Sturridge to inject a sense of danger into City’s defensive unit. Sturridge is evidently a player of immense quality, yet his apparent low threshold to pain will always keep him out of the world-class bracket.
Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher said that “Sturridge will not play unless he is 100% fit.”, whereas ex Blackburn and Celtic striker Chris Sutton, went further saying on BBC 5Live that “Sturridge has a heart the size of a pea.” Sturridge will not get a better chance to silence his critics than Sunday’s final, he has the talent, now he must prove he has the will.
For Liverpool a victory will be like a shot of adrenaline into a club that has looked almost punch-drunk since club legend, Steven Gerrard’s now infamous “slip”. City on the other hand can give the manager who fans, in reference to the Smiths song, have lovingly attached the moniker “The Charming Man”, the perfect send off before Pep Guardiola’s arrival.
It may lack the history of the FA Cup or the prestige of the Champions League, but when the game enters the final few minutes and is still balanced on a knife’s edge, the need for victory on the pitch as well as in the stands will be palpable.