Wild Celebration and Wembley Qualification...
…But let’s not get carried away!
Just four days after the dramatic stoppage-time victory at Carrow Road, Liverpool qualified for the Capital One Cup final on Tuesday night thanks to the perhaps unexpected heroics of Simon Mignolet in the penalty shoot-out. Not only are we on our way to ‘Anfield South’ once more, but those three points against Norwich were crucial in the pursuit of a top four finish, especially after the ‘Old Enemy’ left Merseyside with the spoils in the previous league game.
It must not be forgotten, though, that against Norwich, the defence shipped four goals and that, against Stoke, the attack mustered just two shots on target even after extra time. Whilst the poor display in Tuesday’s second-leg simply cannot have gone unnoticed, any victory for which the reward is a visit to Wembley can understandably have the effect of sweeping away the memory of those 120 unbearable minutes bereft of inspiration and quality. It is therefore important to remember that the recurring issues of recent times have not suddenly vanished.
On the contrary, Liverpool’s frailty at defensive set-pieces and inability to finish chances were once again evident. That may sound peculiar given the five goals scored at Carrow Road, but such a haul was unfortunately not the result of repeatedly incisive Liverpool attacking, but of abysmal defending from the second-worst defence in the Premier League. At the other end of the pitch, Dieumerci Mbokani was able to punish yet more pitiful defending from a corner to finish cleverly among a crowd of flailing defenders, and a stoppage-time free-kick launched from deep within Norwich’s own half inexcusably allowed Sebastian Bassong to equalise.
There was, however, a perhaps more concerning aspect of the performance against Stoke, in that it evoked memories of two other high-pressure occasions: last season’s FA Cup semi-final against Aston Villa and the visit of Chelsea during the title-chasing run-in the year before. On Tuesday, the team again displayed the lack of bottle, belief and composure to handle the expectancy on the big occasion just as they had in those two matches. Similarly, Liverpool’s frantic urgency later in the game highlighted once more the absence of a big-game mentality, and of experienced winners who, by injecting a degree of composure, avoid the ill-considered thrusts forward and instead introduce periods of sustained control and measured attack.
Fortunately, Liverpool made it through a tricky cup tie, and all in the absence of arguably the two most talented players in the current squad, Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. Perhaps after the Norwich game, conceding felt inevitable and the team believed that they would need to score on the night to progress. Perhaps, had those two been available, the team would have felt more confident in their ability to grab that goal. Interestingly, the club now appears to be looking to the transfer market for solutions at both ends of the pitch with moves for prolific goal-scorer Alex Teixeira and defensive leader Joël Matip, though it remains to be seen whether either or both of these deals will be completed during this window.
Frustrating though it is to struggle in front of goal and concede from a corner, it is arguably cause for optimism to be plagued by such basic problems in that the solutions are equally obvious. Fans will expect a significant improvement in these areas during the second half of the season, and there is undoubtedly a vast amount of work to be done on the training ground, and perhaps even in the transfer market. However, if Jürgen Klopp and his staff can drill this team into even adequately defending a basic set-piece, and follow that remarkable achievement up with the introduction of a clinical finisher, then a season so often written off as transitional could yet offer the possibility not only of progress, but of success.