If you asked me a few weeks ago which team I thought would lift this season’s first piece of silverware, I could have told you before you finished the question. When Liverpool and Chelsea were confirmed as the Carabao Cup finalists I really couldn’t see any way the trophy wouldn’t be heading north after the game. Fast forward to final day and I am no longer quite so sure. Why? Let me explain.

Firstly, Liverpool are dealing with what can only be described as an injury crisis. For their midweek game against Luton, they were without a host of first team players including Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Diogo Jota, Mohammed Salah, Thiago Alcântara, Dominik Szoboszlai, Joël Matip, Curtis Jones and Darwin Nunez.

Over the last few weeks Jürgen Klopp has been forced to play kids in the first team who might not otherwise have got a game. To be fair, they have mostly performed excellently, but cup finals bring with them a whole different level of pressure. And that may be telling.

Of course, some of the big names may come into contention for this afternoon’s match. Klopp could have been exaggerating the situation and merely resting players with one eye on the Wembley clash. But that certainly doesn’t apply to that entire list. Some key players will be missing, and that ultimately makes a big difference as I still believe a full-strength Liverpool would be almost certain winners.

Pochettino is still a long way from moulding his team into the proper sum of its parts

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, Chelsea have started to look like they might be getting their act together at long last. Since their back-to-back spankings by Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers at the turn of the month, their results have been far more encouraging. As have their performances.

Victories over Aston Villa and Crystal Palace were followed by a hugely creditable draw away to Manchester City, and if they can take that newly discovered grit and determination into this afternoon’s game, it certainly won’t be the forgone conclusion it once looked like.

Mauricio Pochettino is still a long way from moulding his team into the proper sum of its parts. And we might not see the real Chelsea until next season, when all the squad have finally met each other. But I’m pretty sure he can get them to raise their game for their only chance of winning something this season because, if he can’t, he really shouldn’t be there.

Klopp said last week that, provided they have 11 players, they will go for it, and went on to insist that Chelsea are favourites. But the first part of that is just him milking the situation and looking for sympathy while the latter is nothing more than mind games. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest today’s game between a depleted Liverpool and an improving Chelsea is almost too close to call.

But call it I will. And I’m still going for Liverpool.


A weighty situation

Pep Guardiola has issued a public apology for fat-shaming Kalvin Phillips.

Back in 2022, the Manchester City boss said the midfielder returned from World Cup duty with England out of shape and overweight.

But while those comments may have been aimed at inspiring Phillips to go on a journey of self-improvement, what they actually did was shatter his self-confidence. Phillips has said the public nature of the criticism was particularly hard to take.

We can only assume that Pep’s plan didn’t work in any way, shape or form as the midfielder only went on to make a handful of appearances for City in the following 18 months before moving on to West Ham United a few weeks ago.

And it seems Phillips is still suffering the consequences of his City nightmare, having had a very shaky start to his career in London.

On his debut against Bournemouth, he gave away a goal with his first touch, following that up by giving away another to Manchester United in his second game, and then getting himself sent off for two bookable offences in his third.

I am not Phillips’s biggest fan. He is a decent player and does the midfield dirty work well. But he’s no Declan Rice. Having said that, I was shocked when Pep first made the comments, and now, having heard about the damage they caused, its entirely appropriate the Spaniard should issue a grovelling apology.

He knows he should never have made those comments public in the first place.


Real easy to see this coming

Kylian Mbappe’s move to Real Madrid is apparently agreed, with the France captain set to join the Spanish giants when his Paris Saint-Germain contract runs out in the summer.

Truth be told this transfer has pretty much been on the cards since the day Mbappe arrived in Paris. Within a few minutes of him completing his move from Monaco, people were talking about it being little more than a financially lucrative stepping stone on his way to Spain.

While that may be a slight exaggeration, it is certainly one of those moves you can file under ‘always going to happen at some time’. And that time is just a few months away.

Normally at this point I would talk about how outrageous the sums of money involved are. And Mbappe certainly won’t be going hungry with a €150 million signing bonus followed by a €15 million-a-year salary for five years.

But ultimately, especially when you consider the money being offered to players by the Saudi Pro League, a quarter of a billion euros to get the French captain and arguably one of the greatest players in the world at just 25, is not excessive.

When he does touch down at the Bernabeu it will make Real – yet again – one of the most formidable teams in Europe. They have built incredible squads many times in the past, but this latest version feels a bit more controlled and sensibly planned, with a focus on stars with a long future ahead of them.

No team on the continent will fancy the idea of facing a team built around Mbappe, Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham. You’ve got to give credit where credit is due: this club knows how to build something special.

There’s no wonder so many players see joining Real as the pinnacle of their careers.


E-mail: James.calvert@timesofmalta.com

Twitter: @maltablade

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