It is time to get serious. Liverpool have treated the FA Cup as a diversion so far, rendered entertaining and uplifting by the precociousness of their youngsters but a sideshow nevertheless. Not any more.
A clash with Chelsea, the greater proximity of glory, the reality they cannot acknowledge that the Premier League title is all but won, the fact some records are beyond their reach and the need to rediscover their winning habit: each is a reason why they approach Tuesday's match with a renewed focus and very different personnel.
The coach who led Liverpool in their last FA Cup tie, the 1-0 win over Shrewsbury, is not even at the club anymore, with Neil Critchley, usually their Under-23 manager, now taking the first-team role at Blackpool.
Many of the youngest team in their history will not feature again in this Cup run – indeed Harvey Elliott is instead facing Benfica in the Uefa Youth League – though the hope is they will be seen celebrating at Wembley in May. Jurgen Klopp has resumed control and will parachute in the first-team players.
“We want to go through, that is the plan,” said the German. “Hopefully that is what everyone will see. It’s not about loyalty. These boys, they will be involved in the celebrations. It won't be the team that played Shrewsbury, for sure. The team that played at Shrewsbury was an FA Cup team at that moment.”
That moment came in Liverpool’s winter break, meaning even the experienced understudies were absent, with the notable exception of James Milner. The vice-captain assumed something of an ersatz coaching role that night. Now, Milner is fit again, along with Joe Gomez, who was sorely missed when Liverpool lost 3-0 at Watford on Saturday.
Klopp came to the defence of the beleaguered Dejan Lovren, who struggled at Vicarage Road. “A lot of times in my life, I speak to people and they know less about football than me,” he said. “If people blame Dejan Lovren for our loss then I can’t help these people.”
Watford stun Liverpool
He spoke up, too, for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who stood in for the injured and recently outstanding captain Jordan Henderson. "I love that Hendo is finally getting the recognition he deserved earlier but Hendo's absence, or Milly's absence, was not the reason for losing against Watford,” he said. “He [Oxlade Chamberlain] is a super player. Tell me one player on Saturday night who played his normal level? I'd be really surprised if there were any.”
Which was a way of underlining that Liverpool’s unbeaten run, spanning 44 league games and 422 days, ended in emphatic fashion. It was a collective relapse as no one played well. They were overpowered and overwhelmed. They had demonstrated a machine-like efficiency but Klopp has never regarded people as machines.
“I can ask every for the perfect solutions but the boys have to deliver this,” he explained. “They are human beings, it’s not easy. They have done so well so often.” He harked back to a John Stones goal-line clearance in January 2019. "Imagine if we hadn’t lost at Man City, because of 11mm, we wouldn’t have lost for over 60 games. That is incredible.”
Klopp has always pronounced himself uninterested in records, but the fact is Liverpool can no longer become Invincibles. They tied Manchester City’s best of 18 straight Premier League wins, but they will not overhaul Arsenal’s seemingly unbeatable total of 49 games undefeated.
Yet they can aim for an unprecedented treble. It may require improvement. Liverpool have not been at their best since the winter break and Klopp spoke highly of Chelsea. “There is no favourite,” he claimed. “If there is, it is Chelsea because they are at home.”