Liverpool’s Carabao Cup win showcases Klopp’s trust in youth

LONDON — Jurgen Klopp is still on course for a magical farewell tour as Liverpool manager and he can thank the club’s next generation for getting his injury-hit side over the line in Sunday’s 1-0 Carabao Cup final win against Chelsea.

Virgil van Dijk‘s 118th-minute goal — a header from a Kostas Tsimikas corner — secured Liverpool’s 10th EFL Cup and consigned Chelsea to a sixth successive defeat with the last three of those coming against Klopp’s team. But while captain Van Dijk will claim the headlines, it was the contribution of Liverpool’s young stars that made the difference at Wembley, when Klopp had to rely on untested players because of a mounting injury crisis that, by the end of this game, had grown to 11 first-teamers.

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Only the most ardent Liverpool supporter will have known much about Jayden Danns, James McConnell, and Bobby Clark before their involvement as substitutes against Mauricio Pochettino’s Chelsea. The 18-year-old Danns made his senior debut as a late substitute in last Wednesday’s 4-1 Premier League win against Luton Town at Anfield, while Clark (19) was making only his ninth senior appearance and McConnell (19) his seventh. Incredibly, each of the three teenagers can now boast to have won a major trophy before reaching double figures in terms of first-team appearances.

“What happened here was absolutely insane, these things are not possible,” Klopp said. “The team, a squad, an academy full of character. I am so proud I could be part of that tonight.

“The craziest thing is we deserved it. We had lucky moments, they had lucky moments. The boys showed up, it was really cool. We needed fresh legs, they were fresh but very young, but they did the job.”

With Klopp having announced that he will leave his post as Liverpool manager at the end of the season, almost nine years after taking charge at Anfield, it is perhaps fitting that the club’s future played such a significant role in the first of potentially four trophies in his final campaign. Conor Bradley and Harvey Elliott, both 20, started the game and they were also hugely influential in Liverpool’s win. But the presence of the emerging talent was primarily out of necessity rather than Klopp simply handing them the chance to shine. And if they are to stay on course for three more trophies to send Klopp off with a quadruple, the youngsters will have to step up again.

“When you’re younger and get an opportunity you have to grab it with both hands,” Van Dijk said to Sky Sports after the game. “They should use this to kick on and I’m sure they will. They should keep pushing to get close to the first team and be part of the squad. Being part of this as a teenager only benefits you.”

Liverpool now face a crucial two-week period that could define their season and they head into it with a full team of senior players unavailable to Klopp.

Goalkeeper Alisson Becker and defenders Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joël Matip are injured, with Ryan Gravenberch joining fellow midfielders Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara, Stefan Bajcetic and Dominik Szoboszlai on the sidelines after suffering an ankle injury following a first-half challenge by Moisés Caicedo in this game. Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota, and Darwin Núñez were all absent from the forward line at Wembley.

There is little prospect of any of the above returning in time to face Southampton in Wednesday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie and it is safe to assume that Klopp will not risk any of his senior stars — fit or close to fitness — in the UEFA Europa League round-of-16 first leg against Sparta Prague on March 7. Some of the Wembley team might also be missing against Southampton because of the strain of playing 120 minutes against Chelsea.

Wataru Endo, oh my god,” Klopp said. “He walked through the ceremony with the stiffest legs I ever saw!”

Any of the injured players who don’t return to action at Nottingham Forest in the Premier League next Saturday face a race against time to be involved in the potential title decider against Manchester City at Anfield on March 10. It’s a testament to the energy and spirit that Klopp injects into his teams that Liverpool overcame a much stronger Chelsea side to win the cup, but youngsters tend to suffer inconsistency when they hit the first team, and sustaining the performances they produced at Wembley is by no means guaranteed. So can they hold the fort and keep the team winning until the big guns return?

That’s the challenge that Klopp faces as he attempts to keep Liverpool in the three remaining competitions — FA Cup, Europa League and Premier League. Liverpool certainly rolled with the punches against Chelsea. Both teams had goals disallowed for offside, Liverpool’s by the VAR, and both very tight calls; Liverpool struck the post twice, through Cody Gakpo and Elliott, with Conor Gallagher hitting the foot of the Liverpool woodwork late in the second half.

With Pochettino finishing the game with a £180 million forward line of Mykhailo Mudryk, Christopher Nkunku and Cole Palmer, Chelsea really should have taken advantage of the inexperience and tiredness in the Liverpool ranks.

But with second-string goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher producing a series of world-class saves, Liverpool somehow held out until Van Dijk netted the winner two minutes before the end of extra time. Some teams would have been out of it by that stage, but Klopp’s Liverpool are one of those sides that are never beaten while there is still time on the clock.

Even when the kids replace the senior stars, the result is the same and that is down to Klopp. But the next two weeks will be huge and the youngsters will have to do this again and again to keep the quadruple dream alive.