The weekend brought another end-to-end five-goal thriller packed with incident, talking points, fantastic goals and a late (but not Old Trafford time late) winner from comfortably the best forward in the Premier League. So far, so familiar. You know what you’re getting when you watch Liverpool play these days, except maybe when they play in the League Cup.
The Reds travel to Elland Road tonight for their first meeting with Leeds United since a stunning Harry Kewell goal incurred the wrath of his former followers in a 2-2 Premier League draw in 2003/04. It is a classic English football fixture, one that conjures up black and white images of Ian St. John stooping to head home an extra time winner to secure the holy grail that was Liverpool’s first ever FA Cup in 1965. Or arguably two of the greatest managers of all time, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough, leading out their teams for a Charity Shield clash in 1974, the game that saw Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner – two of football’s finest alliterative geniuses – famously squaring up to each other on the Wembley turf. Tonight though, will be quite different.
As we know, these days the League Cup represents a chance for fringe players to be blooded and young reputations to be forged. Rafa Benitez doesn’t have a great record in the competition bar his final defeat to Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in both bosses’ debut seasons in 2004/05. Liverpool were involved in a much more talked about cup final that year, but this topsy-turvy defeat at the Millennium Stadium – one of the more entertaining Liverpool vs. Chelsea clashes of recent years, in which a late Steven Gerrard own goal forced extra time and ultimately a 3-2 Chelsea win (Antonio Nunez became the first and so far only Liverpool player to score his solitary goal for the club in a cup final, that will impress your friends) – left a mark on Benitez, making him all the more determined not to let other trophy-winning opportunities pass him by. The likes of Richie Partridge, Darren Potter, John Welsh and Mark Smyth all featured in that campaign, but the youngsters who will undoubtedly be involved tonight all look far more capable of forging brighter futures.
As with so many things in football, it took a calamitous defeat to bring things into focus. Benitez had been asking for the money to sign the world’s top young talents since he arrived at the club in 2004, but it took a bizarre 6-3 League Cup defeat to Arsenal in early 2007 for a full review of Liverpool’s youth policy. Theo Walcott, Abou Diaby and Denilson – all in the Gunners’ side that night – had all been coveted by Benitez, but the boss wasn’t given the funds for players so young. After the defeat, youngsters from all over the globe suddenly started arriving at Anfield by the busload, some of whom should be involved tonight.
French youngster Damien Plessis has a handful of first team games under his belt, and shot to prominence with an assured debut in a league game at the Emirates Stadium at the tale end of 2007/08, in which he lined up against Cesc Fabregas in midfield and comfortably held his own. Compatriot David Ngog has four first team goals on his CV – including one against Stoke this season – a match in which young defender Danny Ayala made a first start for the club. Local lad Jay Spearing has captained trophy-winning sides at youth and reserve level and looks a certain starter this evening, while many supporters would love to see a glimpse of the exciting youngster Dani Pacheco, a vastly talented Catalonian who wows the crowds at reserve level and has more than a hint of Fabregas about him. Nathan Eccleston, David Amoo and Martin Kelly all wait in the wings.
Benitez’s scattergun approach when recruiting youth team players has received its fair share of criticism. Liverpool won the FA Youth Cup in 2006 and 2007, and were losing finalists last season, but none of those who featured then are making much of an impact now. You could argue that for all of the talented youngsters signed by the Spanish boss, only Argentinean Emiliano Insua – deservedly Liverpool’s current first choice at left back – has made any sort of impression, but tonight is a chance for some of Benitez’s youngsters to repay the faith shown in them.
Long, illustrious careers all have to start somewhere, and if supporters end up looking back on tonight’s game as the birth of a superstar, then they’ll feel that the expensive outlay on young talent has been worthwhile.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11
Benayoun defies hs critics – September 15
Probably not the best performance in the world – September 18
Darren Potter and the Cup of Youthful Dreams – September 21