As the most successful club in League Cup history, Liverpool need no reminder as to the competition’s significance.
The eight-time winners begin their latest campaign on Wednesday, welcoming Chelsea to Anfield for the pick of the third-round clashes.
These are exciting times for the Reds, who head into the game with a flawless record this season – seven wins from seven games, six in the league and one in Europe. It is their best start since 1990, when they were champions, English football’s dominant force for the best part of 20 years.
Since then, the honours have dried up somewhat – nine major trophies in 28 years, compared with 24 in the preceding 18 – but the feeling on Merseyside, increasingly, is that with Jurgen Klopp at the helm and his side developing impressively, it will not be long before the good times return. Near misses in recent years, most recently at the Champions League final in May, appear only to confirm that fact.
Yet while the pursuit of a 19th league title, and dreams of conquering Europe, are expected to take up the bulk of the club’s focus this season, the importance of a League Cup run is not lost on Klopp, who is fully aware of the need to turn on-field progress into something tangible.
By the time the final of this competition comes around, Liverpool will have gone seven years without a trophy, their longest such run since 1973, when Bill Shankly was in charge. Defeats in all of the four major finals since then, as well as a second-placed Premier League finish four years ago, have done little to quench supporters’ thirst for glory.
Klopp’s first win as Liverpool manager came in the League Cup, against Bournemouth in October 2016. Four months later he led the Reds out in his first final, beaten on penalties by Manchester City at Wembley. A year later his side fell short at the semi-final stage, losing out to Southampton over two legs. Painful memories.
The common perception is that top clubs treat this competition with disdain, as a distraction or annoyance. Recent history fails to back that up; of the last 14 finals, 12 have been won by either Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United. Eight of the beaten finalists have come from that group, plus Arsenal.
Top clubs, top managers value this tournament. Jose Mourinho’s first trophy in England was a League Cup, as was Pep Guardiola’s. At Liverpool, Gerard Houllier’s triumph in 2001 was the catalyst for further success, as the man himself told Goal recently.
“It gave us the belief,” Houllier said. “Before that, we only hoped we could become winners. After we won our first trophy, we knew we could do it. We went on to win the FA Cup and the UEFA Cup, but it started with the League Cup for us.”
How Klopp would love something similar. Liverpool’s last trophy came in this competition back in 2012. The manager will not dismiss its importance.
“We never say it is ‘only the League Cup’,” Klopp said on Tuesday, insisting his side would treat this week’s game as they would any other.
“When I first came in, my first cup game was Bournemouth and everybody here told me you play ‘the kids’. I thought: ‘What? You have a competitive game and you play the kids?!’
"If I see one player tomorrow go into the game and give me the feeling that he thinks: ‘It’s only the League Cup,’ then he could have a real problem. But I know that there will be no player.”
Still, changes to Liverpool’s line-up are expected, with a league game against Chelsea on Saturday to be followed by huge clashes with Napoli and Manchester City in the next 10 days.
Klopp confirmed that Simon Mignolet will make his first start since January in goal, while the likes of Alberto Moreno, Nathaniel Clyne, Dejan Lovren, Fabinho, Naby Keita, Daniel Sturridge and Dominic Solanke will hope for an opportunity. Chelsea, too, will rotate despite losing their own perfect start to the season at West Ham on Sunday.
“We make the decisions because of the situation, not the competition,” Klopp said. “It’s a competition we like!
"The final is at Wembley. That means something. I remember when we were there, we wanted to win it. We were close, but we didn’t. We will try it again."
Stewart Downing was man of the match when Liverpool lifted the trophy six years ago, beating Cardiff City – then of the Championship – on penalties. Now at Middlesbrough, Downing remembers the joy of that occasion and has backed his former club to end their drought under Klopp this season.
“I remember that day well,” Downing tells Goal. “It meant so much to the players and to Kenny [Dalglish] because when you’re at a club like Liverpool, you’re judged on what you win. You're proud to play for the club, but if you can win a trophy then you're adding your name to a long list of winners. That means something.
“We had a difficult season in the league, but the cups were good to us. We made hard work of the League Cup final, but we got over the line, and we felt we should have won the FA Cup later in the season too.”
A £20 million signing, Downing left Anfield in 2013, joining West Ham after just two seasons on Merseyside, and admits he is shocked that the club has been unable to add to their honours list since his departure.
“Very surprised,” he says. “They’ve spent a lot of money in that time, as well.
“Brendan [Rodgers] had a good go and came close to winning the league, and obviously they have had the finals under Jurgen Klopp too. But when you look at the calibre of players that have been at the club in that time, I can’t believe they haven’t been able to get a trophy.
“I’m sure there will be silverware in the not-too-distant future under Klopp though. He's the kind of manager players want to play for.”
Houllier, twice a League Cup winner with the Reds, agrees.
“They’re getting better and better,” the Frenchman says. “They are improving year on year, and the next step now is to find a trophy. And I know from experience that once you get one, the others seem that little bit closer.”
As for Klopp, his focus is a little narrower. He has been quick to preach caution this season, despite his side's impressive opening, and a change in competition will not bring about a change in message from the German. One game at a time, one challenge at a time. Concentrate on the short-term, and the long-term will look after itself.
“It’s not about judging which silverware is more important,” he says. “You cannot do it like that.
“What we have to do is to always be at 100 per cent; concentration, rhythm, focus, intensity. Always be there, and don’t think about where it leads to.
“Tomorrow night is a football game, at a sold-out Anfield. We will be there with all we have. Then if, if, we go to the next round, then we will play that game again with all we have. That’s the only way I know, unfortunately!”