LONDON: Liverpool will face Chelsea in the League Cup final after surviving a scare in their 1-1 draw against Fulham in the semifinal second leg on Wednesday.
Holding a 2-1 advantage from the first leg, Liverpool took the lead through Luis Diaz early in the first half at Craven Cottage.
That should have been the signal for a comfortable evening for Jurgen Klopp’s side.
But they missed several chances to kill off Fulham before Issa Diop’s late goal set the stage for a dramatic denouement.
Liverpool barely held on under Fulham’s barrage of pressure before finally clinching a 3-2 aggregate success.
In a repeat of the 2022 final won by Liverpool on penalties, the Reds will make their 14th appearance in the League Cup showpiece against Chelsea at Wembley on February 25.
Liverpool have won the League Cup a record nine times, while Chelsea, who routed Middlesbrough 6-2 on aggregate on the other semifinal, have lifted the trophy on five occasions, most recently in 2015.
With Mohamed Salah suffering a serious hamstring injury on Africa Cup of Nations duty with Egypt, Liverpool will be bereft of star power for several weeks.
But in Salah’s absence, Liverpool’s victory over Bournemouth on Sunday took them five points clear at the top of the Premier League.
The Reds are also competing in the FA Cup and Europa League, giving them a chance for an incredible quadruple trophy haul this season.
Black and white billboards with the slogan ‘dare to dream’ had surrounded the Craven Cottage pitch in a pre-match message to the Fulham fans, who responded with a raucous atmosphere that belied their sedate reputation.
It didn’t take long for Liverpool to puncture Fulham’s optimism.
Klopp’s men wasted no time getting on the front foot as Diaz glanced a header narrowly wide from Harvey Elliott’s free-kick inside the first two minutes.
Crucially, Joao Palhinha wasted a golden opportunity to put Fulham ahead when the unmarked midfielder met Andreas Pereira’s corner with a volley that whistled over from 10 yards.
Diaz made sure Liverpool took advantage of that escape in the 11th minute, the Colombian rising to win an aerial challenge before darting into the area for a low drive that squirmed through Bernd Leno’s weak attempted save at his near post.
A constant thorn in Fulham’s side, Diaz had the ball in the net again midway through the half but this time his strike was disallowed for offside against Darwin Nunez.
So dominant in the opening stages, Liverpool let their guard down after that and Raul Jimenez’s effort from outside the edge brought a sprawling save from Caoimhin Kelleher.
Deputising for the rested Alisson Becker, Kelleher held Willian’s 25-yard blast moments later.
Kelleher gifted Fulham a chance by coming off his line in a failed bid to catch Willian’s cross, with Tosin Adarabioyo’s knock-down smashed against the post by Pereira.
That lucky let-off re-energised Liverpool, who threatened a second goal as Nunez’s curler forced a fine save from Leno at full stretch.
But Harry Wilson came off the bench to provide a spark for Fulham in the closing stages, whipping over a perfectly-placed cross that Diop flicked past Kelleher from close-range.
In a tense finale, Kelleher made a good stop to keep out Wilson’s blistering strike before Liverpool could finally celebrate.