Klopp's Liverpool to edge Pellegrini's Man City at Wembley
For Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, Sunday's League Cup final offers a chance to win his first trophy in English football, just four months after he took charge at Anfield.
For Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini, whose team lag in the Premier League, are out of the FA Cup and have much to do in the Champions League, it may be the last chance to win silverware before he is replaced by Pep Guardiola.
While both clubs remain in European competition, victory for either team will go some way to rescuing what have so far been disappointing seasons from a domestic point of view.
With the League Cup offering salvation for either side, here's a look at how the teams measure up:
Liverpool goalkeeper Simon Mignolet's new contract caused widespread bemusement among the club's supporters. Yet his manager remains fully supportive of the Belgian.
Joe Hart, England's No.1, will be on bench as Pellegrini shows his loyalty to Willy Caballero, who has been City's keeper throughout his club's progress to Wembley. The Argentinian's display in the 5-1 FA Cup thrashing at Chelsea last week drew a level of mockery that not even Mignolet has had to cope with, especially when he was beaten by an Eden Hazard free kick. With new management coming in, Wembley may end up being Caballero's final bow for City.
Klopp's team selection vs. Augsburg on Thursday, when Lucas Leiva was fielded at centre-back, suggested that Kolo Toure was being saved for Wembley. After a heroic display against Stoke City in the semifinals, particularly the first leg, Klopp appears ready to reward the veteran and play him alongside Mamadou Sakho. Fans may be clamouring for youngster Brad Smith to play at left-back, but Alberto Moreno seems likely to get the start. Either way, Liverpool would have a decent overlapping option on that flank.
Vincent Kompany's return to City has been timely and the skipper's presence brought the best out of centre-back partner Nicolas Otamendi in Wednesday's game vs. Dynamo Kiev. At long last, there appeared solidity in what has been a porous group for too much of this season. Bacary Sagna seems set to start at right-back after the Frenchman played well in Kiev following Pablo Zabaleta's struggles at Chelsea.
Edge: Manchester City
Joe Allen has revived his Liverpool career under Klopp but will miss the final through injury, leaving recently returned club captain Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Lucas, Philippe Coutinho and James Milner as the likely central quartet. Coutinho will be expected to provide the creative spark with Lucas as the holding player, as they seek to contain an opponent that has the most powerful midfield in the English game.
On Wednesday, though there were moments when he idled, Yaya Toure at last put in a great performance in the Champions League, setting up Sergio Aguero's opener and then supplying a thunderbolt goal himself. Another player who prospered that night was David Silva, playing centrally rather than the right flank where his talent often goes to waste. Bringing the best out of this duo is key for City, who could also again use Fernandinho on the right as a shuttling runner.
Edge: Manchester City
Injury has robbed both Aguero and Daniel Sturridge of too much football in the last couple of seasons. The Argentinian, on his day the most incendiary talent in the Premier League, is currently approaching top form, his poacher's strike in Kiev lashed in to make it eight goals in his last seven appearances.
Sturridge, who this week lashed back at the rumour-mongers who suggested he had lost his desire to play football, has scored just one goal in his latest comeback, a run of four matches in February, but there have been flashes of his old self. A player whose pace and positioning can devastate opponents, only the finishing looks to be missing. If he does not start, then Divock Origi seems likely to get the nod ahead of Christian Benteke to partner Roberto Firmino, who scored twice against City in a November league victory.
Edge: Manchester City
Klopp's reputation as the ultimate motivator is scarred by his record in finals when Borussia Dortmund manager. They lost three of the four finals played under him, with Bayern Munich gaining revenge for a 5-2 thrashing in the 2012 German Cup final by winning the Champions League a year later and the German Cup 12 months after that. Last season, Klopp's last match in charge of Dortmund ended in a German cup final defeat to Wolfsburg.
Pellegrini has won four cup finals in his long managerial career, though the 2014 League Cup final defeat of Sunderland was the first trophy he had won since he moved to Europe to take over at Villarreal in 2004. With ambitions to pick up another job when he leaves City this summer, losing at Wembley would be a severe setback.
Edge: Even contest
Liverpool's 4-1 win in November was perhaps the best Premier League performance of the season so far and led to many thinking that Klopp could work a fast-track miracle at the club. His team played like the all-action outfit that won him such acclaim at Dortmund, with Firmino, Coutinho and Adam Lallana, the last of whom will likely miss Sunday with injury, laying waste to a City team pitifully exposing its soft underbelly.
Liverpool have not hit such heights since and City surely cannot play so badly, but anything approaching a repeat could see Liverpool lift the first trophy of their latest new era, and perhaps close off Pellegrini's time at City on a sour note.
Prediction: A 1-1 draw that goes to extra-time, where Liverpool win on penalties.
City have the richest talent in English football, but this is a team with fragility and a propensity to lose focus. A Klopp-energised Liverpool can take them the distance and perhaps repeat their method of victory over Cardiff in the 2012 final. Liverpool have never lost a final on spot-kicks, winning all four.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.