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Liverpool look poised to overcome absences for quadruple

LONDON — One final booked, two more to go and maybe another Premier League title is on the way. Liverpool are ready to take it to the limit this season after overcoming Fulham in the Carabao Cup semifinal to confirm a clash against Chelsea at Wembley next month.

Liverpool’s 1-1 draw against Fulham at Craven Cottage on Wednesday, following a 2-1 first-leg win at Anfield two weeks ago, ensured a rerun of the Carabao Cup final in 2022 — when Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool beat Chelsea in a penalty shootout to win the competition for a record ninth time.

Although Fulham hit the post through an Andreas Pereira shot before Issa Diop’s equaliser in the second-half, Luis Díaz’s 11th-minute opener was enough to make it a comfortable night for Liverpool in claiming a 3-2 aggregate win.

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But will the trip to Wembley signal another surge to silverware this season? Or will it prove to be the start of a fixture backlog that denies Liverpool the Premier League glory that they desperately want?

“There are worse situations, believe me, but we are playing in four days against Norwich, then three days after that we play Chelsea and then Arsenal in another four days,” Klopp said of the fixture congestion that winning has created for Liverpool. “Imagine being us and all the games we have to play. We have five games to play before the final, a few games coming up, but we are really looking forward to Wembley.”

Two years ago, Liverpool’s Carabao Cup success sparked a pursuit of a quadruple to win each of the four trophies available — the Carabao Cup, the FA Cup, the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League — but in the end, they fell short and won just the domestic cups.

By also reaching the Champions League final before losing to Real Madrid in Paris, Liverpool completed 63 first-team games in the 2021-22 season — the maximum they could play. The signs are pointing to that happening again this time around, albeit with Klopp’s side competing in the Europa League, for which they are strong favourites to win, rather than the Champions League.

Still, as Liverpool continue to stay afloat in all four competitions, the toll of trying to win them all only gets heavier.

Back in 2000-01, the Liverpool side under manager Gérard Houllier also played 63 games as they achieved a cup treble of the domestic cups and the UEFA Cup– the forerunner of the Europa League — but they finished a distant third in the league.

But this time around, Liverpool are top of the league and aiming to fend off Manchester City’s growing challenge. The question facing Klopp and his players is whether they can cope with the draining fixture list and win everything — first and foremost the league title.

Liverpool came agonisingly close to a quadruple two years ago, but three wins in their last six games in all competitions pointed to the fatigue, which set in just when Klopp needed his players to be firing at their absolute best.

But maybe Liverpool are stronger now.

They are certainly younger, with 30-somethings Jordan Henderson, Fabinho, James Milner, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané all moving on and replaced with players in their 20s such as Alexis Mac Allister, Dominik Szoboszlai, Ryan Gravenberch, Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo. Klopp also can rely on emerging youngsters Curtis Jones, Harvey Elliott and Conor Bradley to step up, while Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz have further established themselves in the past two years.

Against Fulham, Liverpool won without Mohamed Salah and Wataru Endo (both away on international duty) and the injured pair of Szoboszlai and Trent Alexander-Arnold. Meanwhile, full-back Andy Robertson was on the bench for the first time since dislocating a shoulder in October.

So, all of the above points to Liverpool having the depth to go all the way on all fronts. But eliminating Fulham while carrying a one-goal advantage from the first leg is one thing; winning consistently against stronger opponents in the weeks ahead is a different challenge altogether.

That’s especially true with doubts over the severity of the hamstring injury sustained by Salah at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt. The latest update on Salah is that he faces up to a month on the sideline, so not a hammer blow to Liverpool’s prospects; but if he is out for the full month, it places his participation in the Carabao Cup final on Feb. 25 in some doubt.

Liverpool have won four and drawn one of their five games since Salah departed for AFCON duty — they have only lost twice in 31 games without Salah since he arrived at the club in 2017 — so his absence might not directly hurt the team. But with so many games ahead, the issues come if other forwards are injured and the squad’s resources are depleted. That will be the fear for the Liverpool manager.

Klopp rarely focuses on the negative — early Saturday kickoffs aside — so he will likely be buoyed to see a team that is winning without its star striker and still going strong in four competitions. They are in the Carabao Cup final and face lower league opposition — EFL Championship Norwich City — in the next round of the FA Cup. And there is nobody in the Europa League who comes to rivalling Liverpool as favourites to win it.

Above all, Liverpool remain five points clear of Man City, having played one more game, at the top of the Premier League, with Pep Guardiola’s team still to visit Anfield this season.

Klopp will believe his team can win all four competitions for the first time in Liverpool’s history, and he is right to do so, regardless of the obstacles in Liverpool’s path.

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