Chelsea's increasing belief boosts hope of League Cup glory against Liverpool

Blues appear to have turned a corner in recent matches and will aim to take that confidence to Wembley

Raheem Sterling scored in an impressive first half for Chelsea in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City at Etihad Stadium. AFP
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When Chelsea were mauled by Liverpool in the Premier League at the end of last month, it was hardly the ideal preparation for facing the same opponents in a cup final just a few weeks later.

On that January 31 evening at Anfield, Chelsea were completely outclassed, the 4-1 result even flattering the visitors on a night when Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez hit the post four times – a Premier League record – including a missed penalty.

The Blues' prospects of winning their first trophy of what has so far been a turbulent new era looked even bleaker four days later when they were turned over 4-2 on home turf by mid-table rivals Wolves. Those successive heavy defeats appeared to stop in its tracks some decent momentum that had seen Chelsea win seven and draw one of their previous 10 matches in all competitions.

The setbacks were about more than a lack of points that denied the Blues the chance to climb the Premier League table; it was the absence of character and spirit, and the ease with which the team folded at the first signs of adversity, that would have caused the most alarm to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Yet, with one week to go until the League Cup final at Wembley, Chelsea's chances of victory – and with it, a backdoor entry into European competition next season – look far brighter than they did just two weeks ago.

Since the loss to Wolves, Chelsea have played undoubtedly their best football not only of this season but since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital bought the club and radically overhauled the squad over the past season-and-a-half.

Expected to suffer another defeat away to an Aston Villa side whose imperious Premier League home form has catapulted them into Champions League contention, Chelsea blew them away in their FA Cup fourth-round replay.

Six days later, after reverting to type with a lacklustre first half at Crystal Palace which involved plenty of possession, no cutting edge, and conceding against the run of play – all the undesirable traits that have defined this team – Chelsea roared back with a convincing victory.

And on Saturday evening, taking on the best team in the world in their own stadium, Chelsea deserved their 1-0 lead at the half-time break, and while they were pinned back in the second half, they earned their point in a 1-1 draw with Manchester City.

Something seems to have changed since the Wolves defeat. There is greater fight and unity among the Chelsea players than at any time this season; defenders Axel Disasi – a colossus at the Etihad – and Levi Colvill celebrated blocks and tackles like goals.

Midfielders Enzo Fernandez, Moises Caicedo, and Conor Gallagher ran themselves into the ground. Nicolas Jackson, Raheem Sterling, and the ever-impressive Cole Palmer look a genuinely threatening attacking unit.

The patterns of play and quick, crisp passing have had more purpose in the past three games. Having so often struggled to break teams down this season, Chelsea are now attacking with pace and intent, getting players in the box, putting balls in dangerous areas, and, pertinently, converting more chances.

The Blues did miss some good opportunities to extend their lead at City, although credit should also go to City goalkeeper Ederson for a couple of fine saves.

Perhaps most important is the confidence Chelsea players have gained in recent matches, as much from their performances as the results. This seems a happier, more motivated group.

New leaders are also starting to emerge in the form of Disasi, Colvill, and Enzo Fernandez, while 20-year-old Malo Gusto clearly enjoys the big occasion, and £100 million midfielder Moises Caicedo, 22, improves with each match after a shaky start.

“The spirit we showed [against City] is the way we want to compete,” Pochettino said. “With the talent we have in all the areas, we will reach the level we expect. I’m so pleased because to play a team that is the best in the world is never easy, and today the character and personality the team showed made me very happy.”

Make no mistake, Liverpool are still the firm favourites to lift the League Cup trophy next Sunday. The Reds sit top of the Premier League table by two points and have welcomed back star player Mohamed Salah from a hamstring injury. The Egyptian, who scored on his return in Saturday's 4-1 win at Brentford, was absent for Liverpool's victory over Chelsea.

“We need to feel that it is possible to beat Liverpool,” Pochettino added. “I think we are going to play the second-best team in the world [after City]. I think belief is the most important thing and now we need to recover and prepare for the final.”

That belief looks much stronger after the events of recent matches, and even if victory is not achieved at Wembley next Sunday, Chelsea finally look to have the foundations upon which to build a promising future.

Updated: February 18, 2024, 8:13 AM