SOUVENIR PROGRAMME

Diaz celebrations & Wembley daydreams – Fulham away from the stands

It was a joyous occasion on Wednesday night at Craven Cottage, as we basked in the glory of proving ourselves to indeed be the Wembley wizards.

League Cup final again, then!

It is easy to take occasions like this in your stride given everything we’ve achieved under Jurgen Klopp, but the struggles of last season served as a timely reminder of just how difficult it is to achieve sustained success.

A lot of us went into this semi-final with a sense of confidence bordering on complacency, it is the players’ job to keep a cool, professional head, after all.

There was plenty of Wembley chat in the build-up to Craven Cottage, but the reality was that we were only a goal to the good and were without home advantage.

 

Gearing up for another big one

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Liverpool's Owen Beck, Bobby Clark, and James McConnell before the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Myself and two mates travelled down by car and left shortly after midday. It was a pretty seamless journey and with one service stop we pulled up at our parking spot in Earl’s Court at around 5.30pm.

It transpired that the spot we had reserved had been cancelled while we were on the way down, but we managed to find another around the corner and rewarded ourselves by heading out for a drink and a bite to eat.

Two-legged ties don’t come along too often in domestic competitions, and the feeling of being a goal ahead before a ball is kicked can sometimes be an uncomfortable one.

Liverpool have a habit of doing things the hard way, and when progression is all but expected it makes the prospect of any sort of failure a daunting one.

There are different ways to go out of the cup. Last season, for instance, we pulled up at the second hurdle at the hands of eventual treble-winners Man City at the Etihad.

It was a disappointing way to go out, particularly given the way that rivalry has simmered in recent years, but it was simultaneously the most acceptable way possible.

Losing to mid-table Fulham having carried a 2-1 advantage down from Merseyside would really sting, not least when the showpiece is within touching distance.

 

Early breakthrough

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Liverpool's Luis Díaz celebrates after scoring the first goal during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Walking up to the stadium, all of these scenarios are playing around in your head.

I’d spoken during the week about the fact I really felt Fulham were going to nick an early goal.

I backed us to do the business one way or another but I couldn’t escape the feeling that too many of us were treating it as a foregone conclusion.

There was an early goal, but fortunately, it fell to Luis Diaz, who was exceptional all night and looked back to his pre-injury best.

When you are low down at the opposite end of the stadium it can feel like shots like that take an age to hit the back of the net, you’re even questioning your eyesight at times.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Liverpool's Luis Díaz celebrates after scoring the first goal during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The goal reminded me a lot of Diogo Jota‘s at the Emirates at this stage two years ago, although even with the benefit of a replay, that one truly did take its sweet time to roll beyond Aaron Ramsdale.

Diaz’s goal looked clean watching it back, although our instincts that Bernd Leno was at fault proved to be right.

The noise when we realised it had gone in was something else. Domestic cups often bring the best out of Liverpool supporters and that was certainly not the reaction of 2,700 people who had been counting their chickens.

A red flare made its way onto the pitch, songs about Wembley took off and all of a sudden the cup final chat that felt dismissive earlier in the week seemed a lot more real.

 

Unnecessary nerves

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Now things really had to go wrong for us not to get through, but these things are never straightforward as we well know.

In 2018, we somehow managed to turn a 5-0 advantage into a nervy final few seconds in a European Cup semi-final in Rome, we’d even scored two away goals for good measure.

Tension took over slightly after half-time and all of a sudden the mood was tetchier than it had been at 0-0, for some reason.

Simon Hooper makes plenty of weird calls at the best of times, but those calls were prompting angrier responses than they had before the break.

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Referee Simon Hooper during the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I really enjoyed the home supporters describing Hooper as “the Scouser in the blacK” without a hint of irony at one point, I must say.

Liverpool were playing well but there was an overwhelming sense that something had to go wrong, it always does.

Issa Diop’s goal with around 15 minutes left was the moment those same scenarios as pre-match started to resurface in the brain.

There were one or two hairy moments, and if it was a boxing match the Reds’ legs would have wobbled briefly, but the final whistle elicited the same feelings as the Diaz goal and it was party time in one corner of Craven Cottage.

 

Wembley daydreams

LONDON, ENGLAND - Wednesday, January 24, 2024: Liverpool's captain Virgil van Dijk celebrates after the Football League Cup Semi-Final 2nd Leg match between Fulham FC and Liverpool FC at Craven Cottage. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

We’d got ourselves back to Wembley, a lot has happened in the last two years and the wait certainly hasn’t been as long this time, but somehow it feels more significant.

The Reds have rediscovered how to keep things on their terms, be that playing their best football or by muddling through.

The smiles on the players’ faces were significant. You could sense how much it meant to those who’ve done it before as well as those who have only just joined for the ride.

As we travelled back home, Wembley was all anybody could think about. There were the inevitable ticket chats and even a discussion on whether the League Cup is, in fact, a better competition than the FA Cup.

We’ve decided that it is.

We played songs that reminded us of the triumph two years ago and already started to ponder how the final might play out this time.

Chelsea again. Shall we just go straight to penalties now and save ourselves all the hassle?