By Paul Nicholson
December 17 – The Liverpool bubble was dramatically burst last night as Aston Villa spanked a young team 5-0 in the quarter finals of the EFL League Cup and in front of 30,000+ fans at Villa Park, 4,000 of them travelling Liverpool fans.
Today Liverpool play again, most likely with a more recognisable first team but in what will likely be a considerably easier fixture but certainly a much more hyped one, at the Club World Cup (CWC) in Qatar. Liverpool have been given direct entry into the semi-final of the CWC that has now been playing for a week.
Initially it was thought that Jurgen Klopp would play a core of his first team squad at Villa Park before private jetting the six hours to Qatar for the Club World Cup semi-final against Mexico’s Monterrey – a fixture they would be expected to win comfortably, even with a depleted squad. However FIFA rules demand that Liverpool are in situ well before the match to complete media duties and appearances at locally organised events – in FIFA’s new Club World Cup world these appear more important than domestic club duties and competitions.
FIFA’s press team have been building up the arrival of the Liverpool team to fever pitch in recent weeks, and frankly it is a relief that Salah, Van Dijk, Mane and the all-smiling Klopp have made it there safely to participate in the football jamboree where the football has so far barely registered on the performance radar. Seldom has the arrival of an invading force been so eagerly anticipated since the Normandy landings.
Such is the lack of interest in the fixture that to date the only talk from the tournament has been of human rights issues and migrant worker construction safety issues. This is unfair on Liverpool’s Mexican challengers and Brazil’s Flamengo who comfortably stepped over local challengers Al Hilal 3-1 to make it to the final while Liverpool were being beaten in Birmingham.
To fulfil their CWC commitments Liverpool have sacrificed – some argue disrespected – an English cup competition when they were just two games away from a sell out Wembley final, part of the rarely achieved treble of English competitions that generally judge the greatness of an English side domestically.
Instead they have something of a dead rubber semi in Doha before a crowd that will hopefully be more enthusiastic than the somewhat disastrous Athletics World Cup attendances, before a potentially much more interesting final against Flamengo.
A look at the stats from the Villa game make uncomfortable reading for Liverpool, despite all the morale-boosting encouragement for a young team that were given a brutal lesson in winning from a predominantly second string Villa line-up.
Liverpool’s defeat was their first in 20 games across all competitions (W16 D3), with Aston Villa becoming the first side to beat them since Napoli in the Champions League back in September. It was their biggest margin of defeat in any competition since September 2017, when they lost 5-0 against Manchester City in the Premier League. And it was the first time Liverpool have conceded four first-half goals for the first time in any competition since May 2015, against Stoke in the Premier League.
Whether the League Cup quarter final and the Doha duties prove to be a breakpoint in Liverpool’s season remains to be seen. Starting the campaign with a potential seven trophies to win, Liverpool have now lost two though do have a substantial lead in the Premier League.
The general attitude to the CWC is perhaps best summed up by former player and media commentator Andy Townsend who said on the BBC’s website at the end of the Villa game: “I agree that the Club World Cup doesn’t come round that often, but I just don’t think it holds that much stock. I just don’t think it registers long in the memory. I don’t see it as a true reflection of being a world champion, I just don’t. I get that Liverpool will continue to talk about the importance of the Club World Cup, but it’s not something I get much pleasure out of watching personally.”
That is something that FIFA is keen to change with its expanded CWC format, which is being welcomed by most confederations as it provides an extra opportunity for their top teams. However, if it comes at the disrespecting of domestic club competitions that more clubs can realistically participate in more meaningfully, then it starts to look suspiciously like a money-making entertainment event for the rich rather than a football competition for top level, competitive, elite teams.
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