MANCHESTER, January 19 – Steven Gerrard’s quest for a golden send-off as Liverpool captain reaches a pivotal juncture on Tuesday when his side host Chelsea in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final.
Gerrard could yet end his final Liverpool season with three pieces of silverware, and having inspired his team to a 2-1 win at AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup, he now turns his attention to England’s other domestic cup.
Seventeen points off the pace in the league, Liverpool host second-tier Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday and will tackle Besiktas in the Europa League next month.
The League Cup is a competition that Gerrard has won on three previous occasions, in 2001, 2003 and 2012, and he was left out of Saturday’s 2-0 win at Aston Villa to keep him fresh for the visit of Jose Mourinho’s side.
With the days of his Liverpool career shortening, Gerrard is learning to pick his battles, and Mourinho is an adversary who has caused the 34-year-old more pain than most.
Tuesday’s game will rekindle memories of the 2005 League Cup final in Cardiff, when Liverpool were leading 1-0 until a headed own goal by Gerrard allowed Chelsea to equalise in the 79th minute.
Mourinho was sent to the stands for shushing Liverpool’s fans as he celebrated the goal, but Chelsea went on to win 3-2 in extra time, giving the posturing Portuguese his first trophy in English football.
It was Mourinho, meanwhile, who was to be seen striding down the Anfield touchline and punching his chest last April after the 2-0 win, founded upon Gerrard’s infamous slip, that heralded Liverpool’s title collapse.
While last season’s heartbreak cast a shadow over the opening months of Liverpool’s campaign, there have been stirrings of a revival in recent weeks.
Brendan Rodgers’s side have lost only once in 14 matches in all competitions, with a haul of 13 points from a possible 15 that has regalvanized their bid for a Champions League place.
– Chelsea on song
“We obviously had a bump in the road in the early part of the season,” Rodgers said.
“But in this period, the team is performing at a good level — defensively strong and playing some wonderful football. It’s pleasing, but we have to keep improving.”
Liverpool’s journey in the competition already has a whiff of romance, following an epic 14-13 penalty shootout win over Middlesbrough in round one and a late comeback against Swansea City in round two.
But the road to Wembley is barred by Chelsea, who looked back to their imposing best in a classy 5-0 demolition of Swansea on Saturday and who have not lost at Liverpool since May 2012.
The breezy win at Swansea enabled Chelsea to preserve their place at the league summit and allowed Mourinho to withdraw Diego Costa, Cesc Fabregas and Willian early with a view to the trip to Merseyside.
Costa scored twice at the Liberty Stadium, taking his tally for the league campaign to 17, and with Oscar also claiming a double, it has given Mourinho renewed belief his side can challenge for honours on four fronts.
“Our next game is always the biggest game,” said Mourinho, who also won the League Cup with Chelsea in 2007.
“We have that game on Tuesday and the Capital One Cup becomes the most important competition. It’s as simple as that.”
Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was once again on the bench at Swansea following a finger injury, and having gone three games without conceding a goal, his deputy Petr Cech will hope to continue between the posts.
As well as Gerrard, Liverpool will also hope to recall Adam Lallana, who has returned to training ahead of schedule following a thigh injury.
The return leg takes place on January 27, with the winner going on to play either Tottenham Hotspur or third-tier Sheffield United in the final.