If the Premier League is Liverpool’s bread and butter and the Champions League is an all-inclusive buffet with champagne, the FA Cup is more like a Mars bar—an occasional treat and great while it lasts, but not as big as it was when you were a kid.
The FA Cup fifth round being played on a Monday to Thursday—the longest ‘midweek’ I’ve ever heard of–on the back of fourth-round replays being held during a winter break is symptomatic of the regard it is now held in.
Yet Liverpool might just be embarking on one of the most memorable FA Cup runs we’ve ever had.
Liverpool beating Everton in the third round was one of the best Merseyside derbies I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been to a lot.
The Blues genuinely thought their Anfield jinx was about to end, yet their first team, managed by Carlo Ancelotti, lost 1-0 to a team of kids, squad players and Joe Gomez.
I left Anfield that evening thinking that if Everton can’t win here when Liverpool have rested Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Joran Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah—with Fabinho, Naby Keita, Xherdan Shaqiri, Joel Matip and Dejan Lovren all missing through injury—they never will.
Who knows how long the psychological scars of that defeat will weigh them down for.
Next up was Shrewsbury Town and while the Reds got away with a 2-2 draw after a poor performance at the Montgomery (probably under-) Waters Meadow, the replay was another cracking Anfield occasion.
Jurgen Klopp and his players went on their jollies, Neil Critchley and his whippersnappers stepped in with veteran 19-year-old captain Curtis Jones leading the youngest-ever Liverpool side to victory after right-back Neco crossed for fellow Williams Ro-Shaun to head an own goal winner.
Anything to tell the grandkids you scored in front of the Kop, eh?
I was down at the academy last week interviewing Jake Cain and Leighton Clarkson about that Shrewsbury win—amongst other things—for the next edition of Liverpool FC Magazine, and it should not be underestimated what that night means for them and their careers.
Sometimes all it takes is one game to be a launchpad for bigger things for young players—Jones’ winner against Everton even features in coconut water adverts these days—and that Shrewsbury game may yet be remembered years down the line as the night when a future star or two made their breakthrough.
To be honest, I enjoyed both of those games more than the entire 1991/92 FA Cup campaign when Liverpool stumbled their way to Wembley glory by beating Crewe, Bristol Rovers, Ipswich, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Sunderland back in the days when we got the kind of cup draws that Man City do now.
That FA Cup success felt like the end of an era whereas now it feels like the start of one.
So next up is Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and that gives me the perfect opportunity to whip out an omen, like it’s magically going to affect the outcome of the game.
Liverpool have beaten Chelsea three times in FA Cup games not held at Anfield—at Villa Park in the 1965 semi-final, at Stamford Bridge in the 1986 third round and at Old Trafford in the 2006 semi-final.
The Reds went on to win the FA Cup in all of those years cos they were dead good.
With replays for the fifth round scrapped, presumably because there’s no winter break to hold them in, Liverpool will have to win at Stamford Bridge to progress to the quarter-final—which gives Klopp a quandary in his first-ever fifth-round FA Cup tie.
Does he go to Germany, the Bahamas or Dubai to watch it? Er, I mean does he go all out to win it with his strongest XI, or does he continue using squad players and kids?
I’d be surprised if many kids play at all. For starters, the under-19s play Benfica away in the UEFA Youth League on the same afternoon and, down at the academy, they’re quietly hoping to be able to field as strong a team as possible—a team that would have ideally included Jones, Williams and Harvey Elliott.
Elliott will be in Portugal, but Klopp may well feel that the next step for the others is to see how they deal with a big FA Cup away game at a place like Stamford Bridge, with the option to break out some of his big guns from the bench in case of emergency.
There’s also the possibility that he’ll field most of the side he wants to start against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League a week later and make changes for the Bournemouth game that’s sandwiched in between, although that’s arguably less likely given everyone at Anfield wants, above all else, to get the Premier League won at the earliest available opportunity.
The Reds could easily be out of this competition based on previous team selections, but they’re not.
Beat Chelsea and get a quarter-final home draw against any opponent and I’d be fully expecting a semi-final trip to Wembley. Which is the very least a Liverpool team this good should be achieving.
Chris McLoughlin writes for This Is Anfield each week; he’s also senior writer for the Official LFC Matchday Programme and LFC Magazine. You can order both here.