Winning is always relative. It is, in it’s essence, the point of football, and can give validation to a style and ideology. Naturally, though, it can mean more in some situations than others, and Sunday is certainly a good example.
Jurgen Klopp arrived at Liverpool in October carrying a weight of expectation. The club found itself in a state of flux after the sacking of Brendan Rodgers, not achieving what they wanted despite almost winning the Premier League title less than 18 months earlier. It wasn’t that Rodgers had done a particularly terrible job, but he lacked the charisma, and past record, that demanded trust from the Reds fans. It all felt as though he had just gone as far as he could at Anfield.
The German had everything, it appeared, to take the club on. His geek-like charm and toothy smile were much more than just a façade. The Borussia Dortmund side he spent seven years in charge of earned numerous admirers across the globe for a unique, if slightly odd, style of play, infamously dubbed “heavy metal football” by Klopp himself. The basic requirement is high pressure, not too dissimilar to Rodgers in a sense, but he backed it up with success, winning two Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012 and reaching the Champions League final in 2013.
Mixed results on the pitch since, though, have brought criticism of his appointment. His reputation and personality give the impression things will turn around, and of course he will get the time, but he will be looking for victory at Wembley this weekend when they face Manchester City in the Capital One Cup final.
It is a competition which proves that context is key behind victory, taking some stick for the lack of profile in comparison to the FA Cup. English football pays much more attention to the notion of domestic competition than most other countries who only have one. With fixture congestion the way it is these days, and the number of high profile games that need to be played, it is understandable that a pecking order of importance is formed.
With the final being played in March, allowing minimal crossover with both the FA Cup and Champions League, there should be little excuse. That, in a way, can be an advantage to the likes of Klopp. Winning silverware at the first attempt, no matter how prestigious, will be a relief and serve to show he can work his magic at Anfield in the coming years.
There is a similar feel around the opposition on Sunday, with Manchester City looking to win it for the second time in three years. His opposite number, Manuel Pellegrini, will be able to empathise with Rodgers, having announced he will leave the club at the end of the season and be replaced by the most sought after coach on the planet, Pep Guardiola.
Pellegrini matches Klopp on the charm offensive, but is much quieter, more reserved and polite. In his native Chile, he is affectionately known as “The Engineer” for his ability to get teams functioning, and winning, quickly. He certainly did that at the Etihad, winning the double in his debut season and using the League Cup as a springboard. He has not been able to shake the stigma that he is not a top-rate manager, accepting this with such grace and stepping aside nobly.
He takes his side to Wembley under much less personal pressure than two years ago, but Klopp finds himself in a similar position. Jose Mourinho opened his trophy account in England with Chelsea by lifting it in 2005, doing so again last year. On both occasions, like Pellegrini, he accompanied it with the Premier League title. That may be out of Klopp’s short term reach. but victory would be the first step on his journey to re-establishing Liverpool as a British, and European, superpower.
The Capital One Cup certainly has its critics, and it isn’t a priority for most. If Arsene Wenger won it for Arsenal, it wouldn’t be seen as a huge statement because of his longevity in North London, but it can play a big role in some clubs’ seasons.
Since he took the job on Merseyside, there have been some moments that have felt big and defining. That includes a victory at Manchester City, and if Pellegrini shows this competition the same contempt he showed the FA Cup at Chelsea last week, Sunday could see Jurgen Klopp’s most important victory in England yet.