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LONDON -- Short of Liverpool getting stuck on Merseyside and sending Sheffield United in their stead, this final could not have opened up any more favorably for Chelsea. Battered and bruised, forced to trust in a substitutes bench that might look a little underpowered in a pre-season friendly, Liverpool were there for the taking, at least by their stratospheric standards.

Mauricio Pochettino had over $150 million of attacking talent to swing the EFL Cup final his way. Jurgen Klopp had a few defenders and the best of the academy. Liverpool weren't just down to the bare bones. Jurgen Klopp was rummaging around his osteoblasts by the second half, Ryan Gravenberch's injury giving the German a full dozen first-teamers on the sidelines. As extra time loomed, the task of getting Klopp the first trophy of his final season looked something like the children's crusade.

And yet, their goalkeeper and perhaps Cole Palmer aside, Chelsea seemed content to let extra time drift towards the penalty shootout that has concluded the last four meetings between these two in major finals. A squad assembled at such chaotic expense had no one prepared to grasp hold of this game and take the contest to the teenagers, debutants and heavy legs that made up the Liverpool XI.

Pochettino may yet have questions to answer over the timidity of his side's late attack but it is not as if he was unwilling to change personnel up. Christopher Nkunku entered the fray in the 67th minute and once he got into more central spots before the full-time whistle Chelsea looked a threat. It was a situation begging for Mykhailo Mudryk and Noni Madueke, both on the pitch seven minutes into added time. Neither they nor their teammates exploited their fresh legs. Nor, it should be noted, did Pochettino adjust his system to put more pressure on the Liverpool goal before the shootout. Indeed he noted that his side might have "started to feel that penalties were good for us". Chelsea merely drifted towards the 120th minute.

Virgil van Dijk would not have stood for such passivity. Indeed, while all his opponents were set firm, he rose to thud home his second deadball goal of the day, no chance of this one being ruled out as his looping header had been in the second half. The Liverpool captain embodied qualities that another billion cannot buy Chelsea: an authority that convinces those around them they are capable of so much more than their limited CVs would suggest, a willingness to be counted in the big moments.

There was precious little comparable character from Chelsea when it mattered most. They had had their moments, certainly, but even their late flurry came with the caveat that Liverpool had been blown dramatically off course when Gravenberch limped out with half an hour played, the victim of a clumsy foul by Moises Caicedo. Liverpool's squad, which had looked so stacked at the end of August, had finally run of depth. Somehow that did not mean they were out of puff for the 90 minutes ahead of them.

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When Gravenberch was on the field, Liverpool were in control, albeit one that was contingent on their starting XI lasting as long as possible. Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez had fallen short in late fitness tests, meaning Liverpool were certainly light on the sort of playmakers who can craft something out of nothing. However, the best number 10 in the sport, a well-organized high press, was causing all sorts of issues for a Chelsea side whose nine-figure midfielders all too often carried the ball into trouble. The left flank was supposed to be the release valve for the west Londoners, who would have trusted that Ben Chilwell and Raheem Sterling had the nous to play them out of any danger.

If so, they had not factored in the relentlessness of Conor Bradley. Whenever a Chelsea player received the ball with his back to goal down the Liverpool right he was smashed into by the 20-year-old freight train from County Tyrone. There was no way out when Bradley was about and it was no easier for Chelsea when the youngster had the ball. His eye for spaces in the interior was worthy of Trent Alexander-Arnold when he drifted infield to claim a Van Dijk pass before charging upfield, Enzo Fernandez tucked safely away on his shoulder, and striking for goal.

Liverpool had real balance in their attack, Elliott's fluidity off the right a pleasant contrast to the direct running of Luis Diaz, perhaps the best performer in a game where individual excellence did not translate into two sides successfully executing their systems. That became all the more apparent when Caicedo went flying through Gravenberch, who needed a stretcher to depart the field after a painful blow to his ankle. Video assistant referee John Brooks concluded that the Ecuadorian had been guilty of reckless rather than serious foul play and so there was not even the option to recommend Chris Kavanagh award a yellow card. Caicedo might not have had much to complain about if it had been a red.

With Gravenberch making it a dozen on the sidelines, this felt like the moment Klopp ran out of options. The 28th minute was too soon to throw in an academy player so it was really only Joe Gomez or playing Kostas Tsimikas on the wrong flank. Gomez at right back has worked for Liverpool on a fair few occasions but in general, he doesn't have Bradley playing ahead of him with Elliott forced infield. They may have been the better side over the 90-plus minutes that followed but with their depth chart finally depleted, Liverpool had to ease the vice they had Chelsea in.

The Blues, meanwhile, could shade their defense over towards Diaz, who might have felt he was waging a one-man campaign such was the anonymity of Cody Gakpo. A flicked header against the far post and a shot loosely thudded over the bar was about it for a player who looks like a rare whiff in Liverpool's forward-line recruitment.

Van Dijk's header on the hour might have won them the game but Brooks and Kavanagh had a point. From an offside position, Watru Endo had screened Levi Colwill in such a way that he could not put pressure on the Liverpool captain. Those goals are not often ruled out but if they aren't, it is easy to see football drifting towards a game where the dead ball becomes more prevalent ... and dangerous.

As red legs tired and more academy graduates were introduced, the threat from Chelsea and in particular Cole Palmer grew. On three occasions Conor Gallagher went close: backheeling a Palmer cross against the post, overrunning a through ball from his No. 20 and then blazing high and wide after Nicolas Jackson had done well to hold the ball up. In added time they might have won it but Caoimhin Kelleher is no ordinary backup goalkeeper. Having brilliantly denied Palmer in the first half he was in the zone, repeating the trick as time wore on before rising up to flick Christopher Nkunku's effort on the rebound into his own gloves.

If anyone was going to steal the man of the match award from him it was Djordje Petrovic, his left boot denying Elliott with five minutes to go. He deserved the chance to be the cup final hero but too many around him concluded that their best victory was goalkeeping heroics in a shootout. Passive and cautious when the final had opened up for them, they could not offer Petrovic a helping hand when Van Dijk charged to the front post to meet Kostas Tsimikas' 118th-minute corner. No need for the pick and roll this time, he was getting to the ball no matter who stood between him and it. Chelsea would do well to learn from that.