Can Man City use Capital One Cup win as springboard to end Anfield curse?
It certainly feels like Manchester City are back in the groove for the 2015-16 season. It's true that there have been plenty of moments where that has seemed to be the case only to prove false -- the dominant 3-1 win over Sevilla, the late goal in a 2-1 victory at Watford, turning the match around in the 3-1 League Cup semi-final success over Everton, to name but a few -- but this seems different.
Defeats to Leicester and Tottenham have left the club's title ambitions dangling by a thread. They haven't won back-to-back Premier League matches since October and the run will stretch to five months since the next fixtures are in March. To reach the summit of that downbeat mountain, Manuel Pellegrini then suffered his heaviest loss as City manager in the 5-1 FA Cup rout at Chelsea. There would have been hell to pay with the fans had the Chilean rested virtually all of his senior players for that hammering and then not won his following two matches. As it happens, a comfortable 3-1 result at Dynamo Kiev and a penalty shoot-out success against Liverpool vindicated the Chilean's selections at Stamford Bridge.
Could progress in the Champions League and a third trophy in the cabinet be what finally lifts the club out of its malaise? The sense of ennui has been lingering for quite some time and could be lifting although of course, the fixture list takes them to Anfield next and a meeting with their opponents from Sunday's final.
If I'd just played 120 minutes only to lose on penalties to a team, I would relish the opportunity to get revenge when they rocked up on my own patch three days later. The last thing I'd want is for them to get another victory.
There will be speculation over whether the cup final is likely to affect these two teams but it could go one of two ways -- and it largely revolves around how City's opponents react. If Jurgen Klopp's side come out fighting, it could be a very difficult evening for Pellegrini's men on Wednesday. If they're still feeling sorry for themselves and are exhausted after going through extra time and penalties only to lose, City could get their first win at Anfield since 2003.
It was Liverpool who seemed the fresher by the end of extra time at Wembley on Sunday but that only serves to feed into their disappointment. City should have had the match wrapped up before the Reds equalised but once the scores had been levelled, Pellegrini's men looked shell-shocked until a final onslaught in the last seconds of the additional period.
For that reason, it would be a surprise if the City manager opted for a similar line-up. With Jesus Navas and Wilfried Bony coming off the bench late in the final having recently returned from injury, they might be swapped into the starting XI for some who played the entire 120 minutes. The unused Kelechi Iheanacho also presents another alternative though it is difficult to see the Chilean resting Sergio Aguero, despite the amount of time he's played recently.
It's likely that penalty shoot-out hero Willy Caballero will be replaced by the club's number one in Joe Hart -- a decision many thought should have taken place ahead of the final -- and Yaya Toure looked to be limping quite heavily by the time his winning penalty was belted into the corner.
Pellegrini's has only ever lost at Anfield, emerging defeated in his previous two visits. On both occasions, the hosts stunned his team by getting in their faces and putting pressure on high up the pitch just as they did when they shocked the home fans at the Etihad for November's 4-1 upset. Surely the City manager must be ready for that tactic this time around, especially since the Reds weren't able to effectively implement it at Wembley?
At this stage in the season, a second Premier League title seems unlikely for for Pellegrini, but with the chance to close the gap to Arsenal and keep up their distance behind the leaders with the game in hand, City can't afford any more slip-ups if they are to perform another memorable comeback. If the League Cup final and the Champions League display do represent a turning point, it must be followed by breaking the club's hoodoo at Anfield.
A first win there in 13 years would come in very handy to get the Premier League season back up and running. However, another loss could be a kick in the teeth -- it would be the first time the club had lost three Premier League matches in a row since November 2008, and probably the final nail in the 2016 title challenge.
David Mooney is a writer and a radio journalist based in Manchester. He is also news editor on 104.9 Imagine FM. Twitter: @DavidMooney