Liverpool's Club World Cup final progress justifies Carabao Cup exit, fans' globetrotting
DOHA, Qatar -- For the 20 Liverpool supporters who had made the 3,400-mile dash from Aston Villa to Doha in less than 24 hours, it was worth it in the end as, right at the very end of 90 minutes, Roberto Firmino scored to seal a 2-1 victory against Monterrey and secure a place in Saturday's FIFA Club World Cup final.
On Tuesday, the small band of Liverpool fans, those die-hards who simply refuse to miss any game being played by their team, had watched the youngest side in the club's history suffer a 5-0 defeat in the Carabao Cup quarterfinal in Birmingham against Villa. It was a team, with five debutants, that had an average age of 19 years, six months and three days, which was managed by Neil Critchley, the club's U23 manager, because Jurgen Klopp, quite simply, could not be in two places at once.
But on Wednesday, in a different competition on another continent, Klopp's first team overcame a determined performance by Mexican outfit Monterrey, the CONCACAF Champions League winners, to justify fans' expensive, and challenging, effort to get from England to Qatar in time to be able to say they were at two Liverpool games in the space of 24 hours, almost half a world apart.
Naby Keita's 12th-minute opener had given Liverpool a dream start until Rogelio Funes Mori -- twin brother of former Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori -- equalised for Monterrey two minutes later. But substitute Firmino ensured Liverpool will face Brazilian giants Flamengo in the final by scoring the winning goal just as the fourth official had raised the board to signify three minutes of stoppage time.
Maybe Liverpool had left it late just to make sure those long-distance, last-minute travellers had made it in time to the Khalifa International Stadium.
Some had taken Qatar Airways flight QR36 from Birmingham, leaving at 7:57 Wednesday morning, which touched down at Doha's Hamad International Airport at 5:47 p.m. local time -- less than three hours before kickoff. Another group drove 80 miles from Birmingham to Manchester after the Villa game and spent the night at Manchester Airport before boarding flight QR22 at 7:25 a.m. and landing in Doha at 5:15 p.m.
Once they had arrived in the Qatari capital, the 14-mile journey from the airport to the stadium would have been the easy part.
But how had Liverpool come to find themselves in this situation in the first place, having to play two games in two competitions in two days, one in Europe and the other in Asia? The price of success, having won the Champions League last season, is that Liverpool must negotiate an increasingly congested fixture list of various competitions, and something had to give.
When Manchester United participated in the FIFA Club World Championship -- a precursor of the Club World Cup as we know it -- in Brazil in January 2000 after winning the Champions League in 1999, Sir Alex Ferguson's team were forced to withdraw from that season's FA Cup in order to make the trip to South America. Under pressure from the Football Association and U.K. government, who saw the tournament as an opportunity to promote England's ultimately unsuccessful bid to stage the 2006 World Cup, United were heavily criticised for turning their back on the FA Cup and resentment lingers in some quarters to this day.
With the EFL unwilling to reschedule the quarterfinal against Villa, however, Liverpool chose to fulfil their commitments in both the Carabao Cup and Club World Cup, rather than withdraw from the Carabao Cup, in what was described by EFL chairman Rick Parry, a former Liverpool CEO, as a "pragmatic solution."
"We had to do it like this," Klopp said ahead of the trip to Qatar. "For us, there was absolutely no chance to do it differently when it was clear when [the Villa game] would be played and all the other dates were absolutely not possible for us to play it later.
"There was not one date which really would have worked at all because [for] Aston Villa it is difficult as well and there are possible rematches in the FA Cup. If somebody thought I should have done it differently, I cannot change that."
So with the decision made to play in both competitions, Liverpool split their squad and found a way. Two teams, two managers, two sets of playing kit, two games for a small group of fans to watch and two team buses -- yes, Liverpool even ensured that they had an official logo-covered LFC bus in both Birmingham and Doha.
But for a coach as invested and hands-on as Klopp, it made more sense to prepare his team in Qatar rather than take a private jet from Birmingham to Doha and take charge of both games. So on Tuesday in Doha, Klopp and his coaches sat down in front of a jumbo screen at the team's hotel, the St Regis in Doha's West Bay, at 10.45 p.m. local time to watch the club's youngsters fulfil Liverpool's Carabao Cup commitments. The players were sent to bed to prepare for the Monterrey game, but with the Villa match being screened live in Doha, it is safe to assume that some broke the curfew to watch their young teammates.
The defeat at Villa Park saw Liverpool exit a competition for the first time this season, but for stand-in boss Critchley, the bigger picture was about the experience his young players gained.
"Try telling those players in that dressing room that it was a bad thing for them," Critchley said. "You can't swap that experience for anything, that was a special evening for them and we are the beneficiaries of the success of the first team."
The kids might have lost, but the seniors continue to march on -- runaway leaders of the Premier League, reigning European champions and 90 minutes away from being crowned the kings of the world for the first time. For those 20 fans who clocked up the frequent flier miles on Wednesday, this victory in Doha made it all worthwhile.