For Chelsea and Liverpool, old pot becomes pot of gold
SEMI-FINAL, SECOND LEG
CHELSEA v LIVERPOOL
(Tomorrow, 3.40am, Singtel TV Ch 111)
The League Cup will always be the ugly duckling of English football.
Whether it's sponsored by Capital One or Kim Kardashian, the competition remains the blind date no one dreams of winning.
But events elsewhere have suddenly conspired in its favour. An afternoon spent in the company of a battered old pot at Wembley now seems an attractive prospect for both Chelsea and Liverpool.
The second leg of their semi-final tomorrow morning (Singapore time) has turned from an unappealing bore to a potential blockbuster.
Seasons will be turned by events at Stamford Bridge. The rest of the campaign will be cultivated by both victory and defeat.
Neither side cared much for this competition in pre-season. Now they cannot afford to lose.
Jose Mourinho appeared physically wounded after his side's battering by Bradford. Brendan Rodgers amplified the management-speak gobbledygook after Bolton held out for a draw at Anfield.
Mourinho was ashamed and disgraced. Rodgers was nonsensical and unconvincing, insisting a replay at Bolton should be embraced.
He fooled only the foolish. He'll fool even fewer if he falls at the Bridge.
Liverpool's 10-match unbeaten run matters less than Rodgers' other wretched run. He can't beat Chelsea. He can't beat Mourinho.
He's gone six games without a win, four of which had his former boss and mentor in the opposite dugout. The losing streak eats away at his professional pride like ants attacking a rancid apple.
Mourinho made a mockery of his protege's highfalutin tactics last season. The Portuguese schemer ended the upstart's title charge. On the touchline, they stood apart like man and boy. It was a wonder Mourinho didn't ruffle Rodgers' hair.
The Liverpool manager almost got the Portuguese monkey off his back in the first leg, but Thibaut Courtois kept throwing the stubborn simian back in place with one excellent stop after another.
Chelsea were lucky last week. That was little consolation to Rodgers.
His season wasn't supposed to play out this way, with Liverpool out of serious contention for the title by Christmas and hanging on for a silver bauble that felt like a consolation prize even when the Reds won it with King Kenny in 2011.
Rodgers forever walks the line between triumph and disaster.
Even Liverpool's mini-resurgence after a defensive tweak, the redeployment of Emre Can and Lucas Leiva's unexpected renaissance threaten to be overshadowed by the hulking spectre that refuses to relent.
Mario Balotelli's absence from the FA Cup squad dominated conversation once more, particularly when Rodgers' recent 3-4-3 formation closed the gaps but highlighted the lack of firepower.
Balotelli has become the £16 million ($32m) blunder that literally won't go away.
Daniel Sturridge may even be rushed back into the squad this week, despite his obvious lack of fitness. Such is the obvious displeasure with Balotelli.
But Mourinho's displeasure extends beyond one irredeemable individual. He was disgusted with his entire first 11 against Bradford.
Hardly any will feature against Liverpool, with Courtois, Nemanja Matic and Diego Costa to return for the second leg, but the psychological sting endures.
The FA Cup exit was the most humiliating defeat of Mourinho's coaching career. His wide-eyed, disbelieving shock was real, his fury no less obvious.
He cannot contemplate a second cup exit in three days. Chelsea's Premier League position is irrelevant. The League Cup's lowly status is irrelevant. This isn't about the silverware's pecking order. This is something primal; something deep within one man's DNA that sets him apart, that makes him a serial winner.
He's an Old Testament, eye-for-an-eye guy when it comes to crime and punishment. Chelsea committed a crime. Liverpool must be punished.
Mourinho's muddlers injured his reputation in one cup. He'll only accept another cup in compensation.
Besides, the thought of facing Manchester City at the weekend after two sudden, shocking cup exits doesn't bear thinking about.
Chelsea's season hardly hangs in the balance, but its complexion will be dramatically altered tomorrow morning.
Liverpool's season, on the other hand, could be all but over. Defeat leaves the Reds with only a single shot at redemption.
In their wildest nightmares, the Anfield faithful didn't expect this back in August; an entire campaign hinging on an FA Cup replay at Bolton in the first week of February.
Liverpool just cannot sink at the Bridge. Neither can Chelsea.
The League Cup semi-final has suddenly turned into an alluring white swan. But they'll still be an ugly duckling at the final whistle.
'Pool won't be bullied'
IN THE FIRST LEG: Eden Hazard's (above, left) penalty gives Chelsea the lead in the first half, but Raheem Sterling equalises for Liverpool after the break. - PHOTOS: ACTION IMAGES, REUTERS
Liverpool vice-captain Jordan Henderson insists they will not be bullied by Chelsea in a potentially explosive League Cup semi-final second leg tomorrow morning (Singapore time).
A 1-1 draw at Anfield leaves the tie finely balanced, but there will be a number of sub-plots when the teams take to the field at Stamford Bridge.
Jose Mourinho's side have a number of questions to answer, after conceding a 2-0 lead to lose 4-2 to League One Bradford in the FA Cup.
In addition, there will be an edge to the game after Henderson and Chelsea striker Diego Costa had a disagreement on the pitch, with more verbal jousting continuing in the tunnel after the whistle.
The England midfielder played down the incident, but his actions indicate that Liverpool are prepared to stand toe-to-toe with any opponent.
In relation to the headlines which followed his confrontation with Costa, Henderson said: "I was a little bit surprised... but of course I don't know what you are talking about it."
Asked if there would be an edge to the game - in which he could be a target for home fans - Henderson added: "Probably. Liverpool, Chelsea - two big teams.
"I haven't really thought about it, it doesn't really bother me. The main thing is I go there and do the best for the team.
"You have to be strong mentally and physically and we have been that recently.
"We have shown we can be physical when we need to be, but we just have to keep going."
Liverpool will be boosted by the news that striker Daniel Sturridge could make his long-awaited return from injury.
Former Chelsea striker Sturridge, who scored 25 goals for Liverpool in all competitions last season, has not played for the Merseysiders since August after a series of persistent injuries.
Sturridge travelled to the United States over the Christmas period for treatment on a thigh problem and, having since returned to training with the first team, manager Brendan Rodgers is hopeful the England striker will be ready in time to face Chelsea.
"Sturridge trained very, very well yesterday and that was as comfortable as he's looked," Rodgers said yesterday.
"He looked back to normal. We won't risk it, that's for sure - he's been a long time and we need to make sure he's ready."
Rodgers is also wary of a backlash from Mourinho's side after their shock FA Cup exit.
"They had a difficult result at the weekend, but it doesn't mean they're not a dangerous team and an outstanding team," he said.
"We know it will be a tough game, but we are certainly going in with no fear and our strength is in attack.
"There will be great motivation for them to go out there with a Wembley final at stake, but I'm sure there will be a wee bit of trepidation."
With a week to go before the transfer window shuts, Rodgers said he does not expect to make any new signings.
The Liverpool boss also played down suggestions that misfit striker Mario Balotelli is to leave the club.
"We'll give Mario every chance," Rodgers said.
"We brought him in to give him every chance to show that he can perform consistently for a team at this level." - Wire Services.