Liverpool vs. Cardiff City: 5 Reds Who Will Be Dropped for Carling Cup Final
Liverpool finally return to Wembley this weekend with a League Cup final date against Cardiff City, their first major final since 2007 and their first-ever visit to the rebuilt capital of English football.
One of the most difficult and important jobs that manager Kenny Dalglish will face this week is selecting which players will start the game—and which of them he has to tell will only be substitutes or not involved at all.
Liverpool have played 24 different players throughout the competition en route to the final as they overcame a tough schedule played almost exclusively away from home—before sealing their passage to Wembley and the final itself in front of their home support at Anfield in the semifinal second leg against Manchester City.
Here we take a look at which players are going to get the disappointing call from King Kenny to look on from the sidelines.
Liverpool's Road to Wembley
Second round, away vs. Exeter City, 3-1 (Luis Suarez, Maxi Rodriguez, Andy Carroll)
Third round, away vs. Brighton and Hove Albion, 2-1 (Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt)
Fourth round, away vs. Stoke City, 2-1 (Luis Suarez twice)
Quarterfinal, away vs. Chelsea, 2-0 (Maxi Rodriguez, Martin Kelly)
Semifinal first leg, away vs. Manchester City, 1-0 (Steven Gerrard penalty)
Semifinal second leg, home vs. Manchester City, 2-2 (Steven Gerrard penalty, Craig Bellamy, aggregate 3-2)
Liverpool's League Cup Goal Scorers 2011-12: Luis Suarez (three), Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodriguez, Craig Bellamy (two), Dirk Kuyt, Andy Carroll, Martin Kelly (one)
Liverpool League Cup 2011-12 Appearances: Pepe Reina (six), Martin Skrtel, Jordan Henderson, Jay Spearing, Andy Carroll, Martin Kelly, Craig Bellamy (five), Charlie Adam, Maxi Rodriguez, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt (four), Luis Suarez, Stewart Downing, Sebastian Coates, Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard, Daniel Agger, Jose Enrique (three), Jon Flanagan, Jack Robinson, Glen Johnson (two), Danny Wilson, Jonjo Shelvey, Raul Meireles (one)
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Might as well start at the back, and with Liverpool's vice captain.
There will be plenty of calls and support for Jamie Carragher to start, and with reason; he is the most experienced player in the entire squad, has won numerous trophies for Liverpool—including two League Cups already—and will be one of those who can be counted upon to maintain a professional and determined mindset in the face of "lesser" opposition.
But against all that, he is no longer part of Liverpool's first-choice defensive pairing.
Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have been nothing short of superb for most of the last three or four months, and both deserve to continue that form on into a domestic cup final.
Carragher will be gutted if he doesn't get the call, and rightly so, but that's just the natural progression of things in football, and he'll have to deal with it. Who knows, by the end of the season he might have won his place back in the team and play in an even bigger cup final.
Right now, he is third choice and if both Agger and Skrtel are fit, they should play.
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The right side of midfield is one of the most hotly contested spots in Liverpool's team right now, with Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and even—in a 4-3-3 or similar—Luis Suarez able to fill in on that side, without any of them really being naturally suited to playing wide on that flank.
In Kuyt's first season on Merseyside, Liverpool reached the Champions League final; Kuyt scored late on but the Reds lost out 2-1 to AC Milan and they haven't been back to a final since then.
This time around, Kuyt will be involved but not from the start. He will likely be Liverpool's first-choice attacking change from the bench if needed, but right now he is far from a guaranteed starter in any given Premier League match, let alone a League Cup final.
Kuyt misses out.
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Like Dirk Kuyt, Stewart Downing has been in and out of the team for much of this season having failed to nail down a regular starting berth.
His form has been patchy at best and downright awful in his worst spells, though his performance against Brighton has seemingly given him confidence that he is on his way back to good form.
Too little, too late at this point.
Liverpool get one shot at winning this particular title and even if the opposition, Cardiff City, are in a division lower you can guarantee they are going to throw everything they've got—and then a bit more—to get a result at Wembley.
For that reason, the Reds have to go with in-form and reliable players ahead of some who might have a good game, but might not.
Downing has shown nothing near the kind of consistency in a red shirt needed to suggest he can be counted on when it matters.
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At right-back for Liverpool, Glen Johnson is almost certainly going to play.
Whether he should or not is perhaps up for discussion, but it is highly likely that Kenny Dalglish will go with his first-choice back five of Pepe Reina, Johnson, Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger and Jose Enrique.
And, to be fair, he is right to; it is a cup final, after all. As mentioned, Liverpool get one go at this game and there is no room for sentiment—unless they are several goals clear with not too long to go.
Martin Kelly is one of just six players to have appeared in five of Liverpool's six League Cup ties this season, missing out only on the first match against Exeter City as he recovered from injury, before starting the next four games and coming on as substitute in the second leg of the semifinal.
Kelly is a marvellous, fantastic, talented and special player and he will be part of the Liverpool team for a long time to come—Reds fans know it already, even if the rest of the country doesn't quite just yet.
Were it not for the form of Enrique or the improvement of Johnson, Kelly would have nailed down a regular spot already by now; his consistency and reliability are almost unheard of in such a young defender and he has a great career ahead of him.
But this particular date at Wembley is going to come just too quick for him, and he will have to watch on from the bench.
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The fifth and final player to miss out for Liverpool is likely to be Jay Spearing.
Like his teammate Martin Kelly, Spearing has missed out on just one League Cup fixture on the run to the final, which was the second leg of the semifinal.
Prior to that Spearing had started all of Liverpool's League Cup victories during 2011-12.
There is only one real reason why Spearing will not start this game: the opposition.
For a team like Liverpool, an anchor man sitting in midfield should not be needed against Championship-level opposition.
We have already touched on how Cardiff City will give everything they've got in the final, but so should Liverpool's players.
And in the battle of ability, there should only be one winner.
Spearing can do a more fulsome role in midfield, playing passes further forward and supporting around the edge of the opposition penalty box as well as covering behind Steven Gerrard and breaking up play as part of the midfield duo—but so can Charlie Adam, who is more experienced, has more facets to his game and is probably better at all the on-the-ball artistry than Spearing.
It is Jay's bad luck that the final is not being contested against a Premier League side when, in the continued absence of Lucas Leiva, he would almost certainly be picked to play.
But unless Kenny Dalglish decides Liverpool can do without Adam from the start, it is highly unlikely that Spearing will get to start his first cup final for Liverpool.
Starting XI and Substitutes
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Kenny Dalglish has done a great job to get Liverpool to a domestic cup final at the first real attempt, but it will mean nothing if the Reds go on to lose the League Cup against Cardiff City on Sunday.
Aside from mentally preparing the entire squad to go on and do their job properly, one of Dalglish's biggest and most difficult responsibilities will be to select the starting 11 and substitutes for the game.
Those five players named are who I believe will be left out—let me know below if you agree.
That leaves the following lineup for Liverpool's first cup final since 2007:
Goalkeeper: Pepe Reina
Right-Back: Glen Johnson
Centre-Back: Martin Skrtel
Centre-Back: Daniel Agger
Left-Back: Jose Enrique
Right Midfield: Jordan Henderson
Central Midfield: Steven Gerrard
Central Midfield: Charlie Adam
Left Midfield: Craig Bellamy
Forward: Luis Suarez
Forward: Andy Carroll
Substitutes: Alexander Doni, Jamie Carragher, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Stewart Downing, Dirk Kuyt...and one from Maxi Rodriquez, Sebastian Coates and Jonjo Shelvey.
From the three I'd probably put Maxi in on account of his experience, but Coates has appeared as a third defender plenty of times recently. Shelvey has an outside chance after being involved in plenty of match-day squads recently.