Let’s face it, as fans priorities go the League Cup — especially for a club like Liverpool — is at the bottom of the pile.
Ask any Reds supporter what they’d most like to win, the consensus, among 99% of those asked, would be the Premier League. Then, after the Champions League, the F.A. Cup and the Club World Cup, you’ll find the *insert sponsor name* Cup.
However, as the season enters a key phase for the European Champions you would suspect that the players on the fringes of the Liverpool squad will be much more enthused at the prospect of facing Arsenal at Anfield on Wednesday night.
The last sixteen clash with the Gunners will offer minutes to young players who are keen to impress and long term injury absentees who are looking to regain rhythm to stake a place for first-team selection.
In the previous round, a 2-0 win away to MK Dons, manager Jurgen Klopp opted to pick a team of mixed youth and experience and it seems like the Reds will line out similarly on Wednesday.
For Rhian Brewster and Harvey Elliott, it will be an opportunity to impress on their first Anfield starts and show their wears as bona fide first-team options. While Elliott, the young attacking midfielder who arrived at the club from Fulham over the summer, impressed in the round of 32 victory in Milton Keynes, Brewster had an off night and the onus will be on the England youth striker to up his performance level.
For both prospects, ahead of what is potentially a marathon December for Liverpool, the clash with Unai Emery’s men is bigger than just a League Cup tie. It is an audition and an opportunity to ingratiate themselves to Klopp. Should the Anfield team win, they will — including the prospect of a Club World Cup final — face ten games in December. Such is the extent of this bloated schedule, that there is certain to be rotation and good performances — starting with Arsenal — will keep Elliott and Brewster, among others, foremost in the German’s mind.
For Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Naby Keita Wednesday night’s match provides them with more minutes and sharpness as they all contend for selection ahead of the crunch Premier League bout with Manchester City at Anfield on the 10th of November.
Having lost the title by a singular point to the Etihad side last season, games against City take on massive importance. Last term, Liverpool drew 0-0 and lost 2-1 to the Sky Blues and they will look to fare better in two weeks time.
The Reds hold a six-point lead at the top of the Premier League table, and Pep Guardiola may feel he cannot replicate the relatively conservative tactics — with his full-backs unusually conservative — that he employed at Anfield last season. In order to wrestle themselves closer to the European Champions, the former Barcelona coach may well feel he has to instruct his injury-ravaged side to attack.
This would play into Liverpool’s tactical hands and there must be the temptation from Klopp to pick Oxlade Chamberlain for this game. The England international, after returning from a horrendous knee ligament injury, has been used sparingly but looked like his old dynamic self in the 4-1 away win to Genk in the Champions League last week.
Oxlade Chamberlain, who played alongside Keita in midfield, netted a brace of long-range goals and whet fans appetite of what could be for the remainder of the season.
The former Arsenal man also has a magnificent personal record against Manchester City. In the 17/18 season, the powerful midfielder scored twice against City — in both the Premier League and Champions League — and was a key player in the Reds 2-1 away European win at the Etihad.
Oxlade Chamberlain’s powerful running and bloody-minded ambition in transition is something that the defending Premier League champions have struggled to deal with in the past and their cause will not be helped with the injury to Rodri and the fact that injuries to Nicolas Otamendi and Aymeric Laporte will mean that their best defensive midfielder, Fernandinho, will likely line out at centre half.
Similarly, Keita who has also had his injury issues will know that a good showing against Arsenal will help him put his hands up for selection versus Aston Villa this weekend or City the following weekend. The Guinean, like his English midfield comrade, is a player — with his distinctive slaloming dribbling style and ambitious passing game — who thrives in a transitional game and he could be an option to take advantage of Manchester City’s defensive ailments.
Joe G0mez, meanwhile, will know that a good performance will help win back the right centre half spot next to Virgil van Dijk. The Englishman has started on the bench in the previous two games, with Dejan Lovren trusted to start beside van Dijk with Joel Matip ruled out for six weeks with a knee injury.
For the City game, more than others, Gomez’ pace will be a key requirement.
Despite the win, in the recent game against Spurs, the opposition targeted Lovren with Paolo Gazzaniga’s long-range distribution exposing the Croat’s poor positioning.
A chance was created when the keeper’s long kick found Harry Kane, who bullied Lovren physically, to flick on a header in the first half. Son Heung Min rounded Alisson, only to hit the bar when a pass from the Argentinian keeper was misjudged by the centre half and allowed the Korean to run through on goal.
With Ederson, the best footballing goalkeeper in the world, minding City’s nets this could be an avenue they look to exploit. In the Cityzens last game — a 3-0 victory over Aston Villa — Ederson had a hand in the opening goal.
The Brazilian’s long kick was flicked on by his compatriot, Gabriel Jesus — who somehow beat the much taller Tyrone Mings in the air — before Raheem Sterling scored.
Gomez, who is considerably quicker than Lovren, will allow Liverpool to play a higher line and his recovery pace will provide insurance to the Reds backline.
It is all well and good highlighting the Englishman’s excellent defensive attributes, but he will need to tie them together into a solid, 90-minute performance — the kind he was producing weekly at the start of last season — and the Arsenal game is the ideal place for him to start.