My, that was close. With the whole of Craven Cottage issuing a guttural roar of possibility, with the chant “stand up if you still believe” echoing round the stadium, with Fulham snapping and snarling in the attempt to snatch a goal which would have taken this magnificently tense semi-final to extra time, Liverpool made it through to what will be their 14th appearance in a League Cup final. Just.
As he celebrated with his team on the pitch at the final whistle, Jurgen Klopp will have had a moment of reflection, appreciating that were it not for a significant intervention by his assistant Pep Lijnders, things could have been very different.
Because this match took place almost two years to the day since Liverpool signed Luis Diaz from Porto, snaffling him from under the noses of Tottenham. And what a piece of business that has turned out to be: £38 million plus add-ons they paid for his services, or roughly what Manchester United forked out for Antony’s right foot.
And here he was 24 months on, providing the moment of delight that maintained his club’s march on four pieces of silverware. His goal in the 11th minute, swivelling past Timothy Castagne as if he was not there, then confusing the Fulham keeper Bernd Leno with a drilled shot, ultimately took Liverpool to Wembley. And to think, until former Porto coach Lijnders intervened and insisted the young winger had to join him on Merseyside, Diaz might have eschewed all that trophy-pursuing stuff and spent his time passing the ball sideways for Antonio Conte at Spurs.
Last week, Klopp was obliged to confront the worst news a manager can face in the middle of a tough season: his best player had been injured for what might be as long as a month, while on duty at the Africa Cup of Nations. Yet, as the player sits on the sidelines, if there was anybody he could rely on to step into Mohammed Salah’s position of prominence, it is Diaz. The Colombian was magnificent here, a whirligig of energy and direction, a non-stop engine of intent. Or as Klopp put it about him:
“He’s a fantastic player, the speed, the power,” he said. “He was a nightmare [for the opposition] to be honest, he kept the ball, he won the ball, he was everywhere.”
This is the thing about Diaz, and indeed all of this Liverpool team: they work. There is no slacking anywhere, no assumption that someone else will do the job. Diaz leads from the front, never letting up, the ultimate pressing machine. His value was summed up in a moment almost as significant as his goal.
Swapping with Darwin Nunez and playing down the middle, he won the ball in his own half, skipped a tackle by Joao Palhinha – not many do that – and barrelled forward at pace, eating up the space, before feeding his Uruguayan team-mate perfectly, even if the shot was well saved by Leno.
Mind, did he have to be at his best. Fulham really dug in here, never relenting. Willian, Tom Cairney and Raul Jimenez provided the most testing of opposition. Tosin Adarabioyo putting in a formidable slider of a tackle on Nunez, Andreas Pereira hitting the post, the substitute Harry Wilson upending his old employers to provide the cross for Issa Diop to equalise: no-one could question the home players’ desire to make history for the club, by progressing to their first ever League Cup final.
That it wasn’t to be was down to Diaz as much as anybody. Not that his manager was entirely satisfied by his player’s performance.
“I wish,” Klopp said, “he had set up a second goal and scored a third, but…”
And then he broke into a beam of a smile. It was the grin of a manager who knows he has a real winner at his disposal.