Liverpool take a break from their bids for Premier League and Champions League glory when they entertain Chelsea in the third round of the League Cup on Wednesday.
It is a tougher test than the Reds would have anticipated at this early stage of the competition, but still the tie pales into insignificance after a look at the fixture list.
Liverpool play Chelsea again – at Stamford Bridge this time – on Saturday evening before a trip to Napoli and one of the season’s most crucial fixtures at home to Manchester City.
Changes are inevitable, but Jurgen Klopp still has a decision to make. Will he, not just in this tie but in future cup games, select a strong side to boost his chances of a first trophy at the club, or protect all of his most valuable players to give his side the best possible chance of sustaining their domestic and continental title bids?
Approach one: Push for silverware
Hypothetical XI: Alisson; Clyne, Matip, Lovren, Moreno; Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Lallana; Shaqiri, Sturridge, Mane
Klopp has come agonisingly close to silverware on three occasions since taking over in October 2015 and he will be determined to put that right this season.
Of course, winning the League Cup alone would not satisfy Liverpool’s hungry supporters, but it could provide a significant confidence boost heading into the final stretch of the season.
Moreover, after 170 million pounds of investment in the summer, Klopp may be confident he has the strength-in-depth at his disposal for a balanced, rather than a sacrificial, approach.
Simon Mignolet may publicly have expressed his frustration with his predicament at Anfield, but Klopp could choose to give new arrival Alisson another big test given that fatigue does not tend to be a significant issue for goalkeepers.
Nathaniel Clyne is likely to come in for Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has played virtually every minute so far this season, and, on a similar note, Alberto Moreno will probably replace Andrew Robertson. This competition, along with the FA Cup, looks their only real chance of first-team football aside from occasional rotation.
Joel Matip’s excellent performance on a surprise start against Southampton will likely earn him more game-time in the League Cup and, if Liverpool are able to get past Chelsea, he could rekindle his partnership with Dejan Lovren in the later rounds.
In midfield, Fabinho may finally earn a first start of the campaign after being oh-so-cautiously eased into action by Klopp. With Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum both excelling in the no.6 role of late, League Cup starts may prove the Brazilian’s best chance to force his way into contention.
Adam Lallana will miss the game against Chelsea but should be given a valuable chance to build his match fitness in later rounds if Liverpool progress. You would then expect one of the usual suspects to complete the trio.
Xherdan Shaqiri and Daniel Sturridge have seized chances to impress in the last two games and, together with a member of the traditional frontline, they could form perhaps the most high-quality attack in the competition, depending on what approach their rivals choose to take.
If Liverpool beat Chelsea, they are just two wins away from a place in the semifinals. Klopp could be tempted to take this competition seriously when his side are already so close to the business end.
Approach two: Make sacrifices
Hypothetical XI: Grabara; Clyne, Matip, Phillips, Moreno; Fabinho, Jones, Shaqiri; Origi, Solanke, Camacho
The counterargument, though, is also persuasive. Fans would be livid if a key player sustained an injury, damaging Liverpool’s title bid, in what would seem a meaningless cup tie.
Indeed, Liverpool play with such a high degree of intensity that rests for almost every player in starting contention could be welcome.
It could also be argued that the FA Cup, offering a much more prestigious prize, should be taken seriously, while the League Cup should be treated as one of the few opportunities to hand promising youngsters a taste of competitive action.
You could ask, for example, when else 19-year-old ‘keepers Kamil Grabara or Caoimhin Kelleher will get a chance to build-on a strong pre-season with a first-team start. The League Cup may be an ideal platform, albeit against lesser opposition than Chelsea.
Clyne and Moreno will probably be part of the starting XI regardless of the approach Klopp takes, but if he deems wholesale changes necessary he will likely hand Nat Phillips an outing alongside a more experienced partner.
The temporary departure of Marko Grujic leaves Fabinho, for the moment at least, at the bottom of the (experienced) midfielders’ pecking order, so again he will likely be selected regardless. In front of him, though, 17-year-old Curtis Jones could feature, having caught the eye at youth level and in pre-season. It is worth noting Trent Alexander-Arnold, a prospect who excited just as much, also made his first start in this competition.
Given that Liverpool’s front three are consistently the first names on the team sheet, Klopp might deploy Shaqiri in an advanced midfield role rather than on the flanks. The Swiss could use this competition to make himself more comfortable role.
Rafa Camacho is another who shone in the summer and will be hopeful of a dream debut when the regulars make way. Perhaps he could prove himself to be a worthy back-up to Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane.
Divock Origi’s Liverpool career is virtually over, as was demonstrated by the club’s attempts to offload him over the summer. He won’t be playing in the Premier League or in Europe, so if Klopp intends to use him at all, it will be in the domestic cups. The Belgian could start on the wings as he did in the pre-season friendlies.
Through the middle, Klopp might back not Daniel Sturridge, who will likely benefit from rotation and make plenty of substitute appearances, but Dominic Solanke, who may struggle to live up to his potential if he continues to be left out of matchday squads. After Christmas, in the FA Cup, Rhian Brewster could get the senior minutes he was promised when he signed a new contract.
Young players need opportunities or their promise will go to waste. But could fielding those who are either lacking sharpness or experience be inviting defeat?
Last time out
Klopp selected the following team against Leicester just over a year ago:
Ward; Flanagan, Gomez, Klavan, Robertson; Henderson, Grujic, Wijnaldum; Oxlade-Chamberlain, Solanke, Coutinho
Philippe Coutinho, returning to action after his brief strike, was the headline starter, but Klopp also handed Andrew Robertson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a start after sidelining them at the beginning of the season. He will surely do the same with Fabinho.
However, Klopp was made to pay for weakening his backline and picking players who were lacking rhythm as his side fell to a 2-0 defeat the King Power Stadium.
It remains to be seen whether the memory of that somewhat gruelling loss will inform his decision this time around.