Ian Rush: Nothing Can Take The Shine Off Liverpool’s Season From Here
It was a privilege to be at Wembley to watch this special Liverpool side lift the FA Cup on Saturday after another tense penalty shootout with Chelsea.
I mentioned in last week’s column that we could be in for a similar game to the League Cup final and so it proved – it was almost an exact replica.
It all came down to who could hold their nerve better and, in the end, Kostas Tsimikas was the unlikely hero with a firmly struck penalty in sudden death.
I have to admit, I was a little concerned going into the shootout as we’d already lost Mohamed Salah and Virgil van Dijk, who I’d back to score a penalty all day long.
Then again, I’d have put Sadio Mane in the same category and he ended up being the only Liverpool player to miss one.
It can’t have been easy for Mane going up against his international team-mate like that and, in fairness, it was a good save from Edouard Mendy, who maybe knows Mane a little too well.
I really enjoyed Tsimikas’ celebration when he hit the winner, he really lapped it up and why shouldn’t he? He knows his place in the squad but all season he’s been the perfect understudy to Andy Robertson and he took his chance in the spotlight at Wembley.
Tsimikas has really kicked on this year. Last season, he only played seven games, but he’s got 26 appearances in all competitions this term and with Liverpool playing the maximum number of games available to them this season it’s essential to have good cover for Robertson.
Jurgen Klopp has had a bit of stick in the past for not taking the FA Cup seriously but this season has been different and, now that he’s seen how much it means to the supporters, maybe he’ll really fancy defending the trophy again next season.
And not just the FA Cup – the League Cup will carry greater importance now to Klopp too, now that he’s reaped the benefits of lifting it after using mostly young players. There’s a lot of youngsters in this squad and, this season, they’ve all grown up to be men.
Credit To Chelsea
Given everything that’s gone on at Chelsea this season, they’ve done remarkably well on the field. They’re going to finish in the top four in the Premier League and they’ve reached two cup finals, all on the back of uncertainty surrounding the future of the club and several players with contracts running out.
They’re losing some key players in defence so they’ll have to start rebuilding. The best thing they have going for them is their manager – Thomas Tuchel is out of the top drawer and, assuming he stays, they’re in good hands as far as the football is concerned.
With Liverpool and Manchester City likely to strengthen their squads further, it’s a big summer for the Blues, but once they get a takeover wrapped up they’ll be able to do business again. They’ve got to get their dealings right though, because they’re already having to make up ground on the top two.
Diaz Getting Even Stronger
Given the performance Luis Diaz put in at Wembley, one might assume that he’s a guaranteed starter in the Champions League final next week, but it’s by no means a given.
Liverpool have such fantastic strength in depth I wouldn’t put money on any forward as a certainty to start. Diaz has been fantastic though, I really didn’t expect him to hit the ground running because English football is so demanding, but he’s taken to it like a duck to water.
Even so, if Jurgen thinks he has a better option to suit Real Madrid then he’ll have no hesitation in going with what he believes is best – and Roberto Firmino gave us all a reminder of how good he is with an assured performance against Southampton on Tuesday night.
Any three of the forwards from maybe six or seven options could be in Klopp’s mind, but he won’t be thinking about the Champions League final just yet – there’s still the small matter of the Premier League title to be settled.
Speaking of squad depth, I was a bit unsure when I seen Klopp making nine changes for the visit to Southampton.
Not that I have any doubt about the quality of his squad, but with the Saints playing out their last home game of the season I was mindful that they’d be looking to put on a show for their fans.
I was a bit wary and Southampton did put up a good fight, but Klopp had full faith in his fringe players and, once again, they’ve proven how good they are as a squad.
Klopp admitted after the game that he would have had many fingers pointed at him had Liverpool failed to win, it would have all but ended their title bid and therefore their quadruple hopes.
But, in fairness to him, he never doubted the players he selected and they repaid him, so it can now be looked upon as excellent management.
Salah and Van Dijk Injuries
We’re facing a waiting game now to learn the extent of the injuries to Salah and van Dijk and it’s possible Liverpool will have to finish the league season off without them, but I’m very hopeful they’ll at least be fit for the Champions League final.
Salah will want to play against Wolves – he’s top of the golden boot standings and will want to add to his tally to stave off the threat from Son Heung-min, who’s only one goal behind him now.
He might have to settle for a place on the bench though as his fitness is a bigger concern for Klopp ahead of the Real Madrid game, although if things aren’t going Liverpool’s way on Sunday he may need to be introduced.
I’d back Joel Matip and Ibrahima Konate to keep Wolves at bay at Anfield though, so maybe we won’t see van Dijk feature on the final day of the Premier League.
Wolves haven’t been at their best over the past few weeks and, with the home crowd expected to be in full voice given there’s a title on the line, Liverpool should have enough to get the three points and that’s all they can really do.
Can Villa Help Out The Reds?
Steven Gerrard is already a Liverpool icon of the highest order but he’ll add a whole new chapter to his legendary status if he can play a helping hand in his old club winning the Premier League on Sunday.
Knowing Stevie, he won’t be thinking like that. He’ll be plotting for a result for Villa first and foremost, but he’s not the only Liverpool connection on the Villa Park books – there’s also Gary McAllister and, of course, Philippe Coutinho.
Wouldn’t it be nice to see Coutinho pop up with a decisive goal? I hope he’s motivated by the 2013-14 season when City pipped the Liverpool team he was a part of on the last day.
Liverpool Quadruple Hopes
Here we are, with two games remaining, and Liverpool still have a chance at winning the quadruple. It’s pretty remarkable to think that every single Liverpool game this season has had something significant riding on it.
What I love so much about this side is that they’re a joy to watch. They don’t play boring football, it’s full throttle and the fact they’re a little bit vulnerable given the high line they defend with makes them an enjoyable watch for neutrals too.
To get this far and still have a shot at winning everything before them is astonishing, but even if they fail to win both the Premier League and the Champions League it shouldn’t take the shine off what has been an incredible season.
Yes, people will be disappointed if City burst the quadruple bubble this weekend, and then losing to Real Madrid the following weekend would hurt, but even if that happens this is still a season for the ages.
Players who operate at this level only become more determined when they get agonisingly close to winning, but fall short. Like the Liverpool side who lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid in 2018, they came back in 2019 and won it. They did the same thing in the league the following season.
What I’m saying is, failure isn’t always what it’s made out to be. It can breed success further down the line, and fans will have to realise that if things don’t go Liverpool’s way in the last two games of the campaign.
Mbappe Could Still Be Swayed
Klopp made a few headlines this week when he said “of course we are interested in Kylian Mbappe,” but when you read the full transcript it seems there’s nothing much to it.
As a manager of a big club you always have to keep your options open and there’s no football boss in the world who wouldn’t be keen on signing Mbappe.
He’s clearly world class, he’s young and he’s available on a free transfer. Any team who could afford him would be interested but, like Klopp suggests, Liverpool are probably not in a financial position to sign him.
However, we know Mbappe is a big fan of Klopp’s style of play and we still don’t know for sure whether he’ll be playing at Real Madrid, PSG or even Liverpool next season.
Real Madrid have put themselves in a strong position to win the race but every manager at the top of the game will be keeping their options open when a player like Mbappe becomes available.
If Liverpool were to get Mbappe it would most probably come down to the manager selling the club to him, rather than Liverpool offering up the sort of wages he can command.
Mbappe still hasn’t won the Champions League and Liverpool are in their third final under Klopp, so you can see why Liverpool are probably Madrid’s biggest rivals for his signature.
We’ve seen Klopp pull it off before – if you go back to when we were signing van Dijk, he had the opportunity to go to Man City or Chelsea for a bigger wage but he chose Liverpool based on the manager.
Look how much of a hero van Dijk is now. Maybe Mbappe could be convinced without breaking the wage structure. It would take something special to pull it off, but if anyone can convince him, Klopp can.
Premier League Final Day
To get to the final day of the season with matters such as the title, relegation and top four all yet to be decided really is a measure of how good the Premier League is.
There’s going to be so much going on we won’t know what’s hit us on Sunday! I’ll be at Anfield so I’ll have my eyes firmly fixed on Liverpool of course, but the relegation battle is fascinating too.
Tottenham have worked themselves into an ideal position for the top four and I don’t think we’ll see too many twists and turns there.
I’ve been backing Arsenal all season to get top four this year and, unfortunately, the wheels have come off at the worst possible moment.
The defeat at Newcastle on Monday was incredibly disappointing for them. It’s gone from being in their own hands to being out of their control with one game to go.
Credit to Tottenham for reeling Arsenal in – Spurs have been excellent recently – and I don’t see them blowing it on the last day now, but Arsenal have really thrown in away.
The manner in which they seem likely to miss out on the top four won’t do Arteta any favours but Arsenal should stick with him.
He recently signed a new deal so I guess Arsenal have to persevere and I think they should do. But, assuming they finish fifth, next season is really important for Arteta and Arsenal so we’ll have to see how they get on.
Jake Daniels Commended
Blackpool footballer Jake Daniels took a hugely progressive step this week by coming out as gay, the first male player to do so since Justin Fashanu in 1990.
I can’t tell you how impressed I am by the young man’s bravery. The fact he’s only 17 makes it all the more impressive and, despite his tender years, he’ll likely become a role model for many more.
He should be very proud of himself and I hope he can just get on with his career now without worrying about something that really shouldn’t be an issue. When you feel like you have something to hide, it can make it hard to concentrate on your job, so the fact he’s got this off his chest so early in his career will only help his football.
When I think back to when Justin Fashanu was playing, I was in the thick of my own career and it seems like so long ago now. It’s been a long time and it’s sad that so many years have passed without an active player in the UK feeling comfortable enough to come out.
The men’s game could certainly learn a few things from the women’s game, where players and fans are a lot more open. Hopefully Jake’s announcement is a landmark moment for men’s football and I wish him the very best of luck with his very promising career.
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