For once, Jurgen Klopp looked ecstatic to have been burdened with an even more hectic January schedule.
Even by Liverpool’s standards during his reign, he had just witnessed the climax to an extraordinary, improbable comeback victory.
For 45 minutes, it looked like a case of how many for Leicester City in a captivating quarter-final. Liverpool were understrength, underpar and 3-1 down. They had succumbed to two Jamie Vardy goals and a stunner from James Maddison from 25 yards, which until the 95th minute looked like a worthy winner. Vardy had also hit the post in the first half during a period when a 4-1 half-time lead would not have been flattering. It was not quite AC Milan dismantling Liverpool in Istanbul, but the images were springing to mind, every counter-attack leading to a shot at Caoimhin Kelleher’s goal.
An hour later, Klopp and his players were enjoying a lap of honour after a 3-3 draw and penalty shootout win, assisted by two Kelleher saves. The mood had been transformed from Liverpool appearing ambivalent about their ongoing involvement in the competition to enjoying the chants about a possible Wembley trip.
All the suspicions that Klopp sees the Carabao Cup as a source of further fixture congestion more than a chance to add silverware were hastily reviewed, even if he still appealed for the semi-final to be reduced to one leg.
“I’m fine with one game away at Arsenal,” he said.
“We [the managers] have a meeting with the Premier League at 4pm on Wednesday, but not the EFL.”
Even when he said this, the professional and emotional satisfaction of victory in such circumstances took precedence.
When the team sheets were printed, it was not so clear progress would mean so much. Over the course of the evening it felt like a distant, almost reluctant ambition to go further became an impassioned push for glory. Facing the prospect of a humbling defeat, pride and an innate determination to fight for every trophy gripped.
Sure, Liverpool’s starting XI included Jordan Henderson, Roberto Firmino and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Many more first teamers were sacrificed to give experience to youngsters.
Initially, the punishment was brutal. Leicester’s was a Premier League line-up and the chasm in experience and class showed, most notably in the clash between the visitors’ attack and the host defence.
Liverpool were error-prone and Leicester too classy to fail to overwhelm them and take advantage. Vardy, especially, was having a party in front of the Kop whenever defenders dallied in possession.
The striker should have had a hat-trick by half-time, scoring twice in the first 12 minutes. On both occasions, the starting point was Liverpool cheaply surrendering possession, Leicester incisively inflicting punishment.
Maddison and Patson Daka provided the assists. The midfielder added the third after Oxlade-Chamberlain had offered the first hint of a revival on 19 minutes.
Liverpool’s youthful personnel could not contain Leicester then, the visitors capable of embarrassing the home side with each attack, Joe Gomez suffering on his comeback alongside debutant Billy Koumetio.
“We should have scored another goal at least,” said Rodgers. He was right, which made his later comments about being proud at how close his side went to winning sound hollow. This was a night of regret for him and his players.
When Gomez’s slack pass on 38 minutes gifted Vardy the chance for a treble, he was denied by the post. It proved to be a turning point. Klopp long realised by then he had erred in his selection. The remedy would be spectacular.
Diogo Jota, James Milner and Ibrahima Konate’s half-time introduction was greeted like the horn-blowing for a cavalry charge.
Minamino sent Jota clear to make it 3-2 on 67 minutes and it was as if Anfield was in the midst of one of those legendary European comebacks. Leicester, so poised early on, were hindered by the loss of Ricardo and Caglar Soyuncu with injuries. Now Rodgers’ players were wobbling and their formation was ramshackle.
“You saw the injuries we picked up in the second half. We had to change the structure of the team, “ said Rodgers.
Few know better how rapidly the pendulum can swing in this venue than the ex-Liverpool manager. He is still waiting for his first Anfield win since 2015. He was still the Liverpool coach then.
Jota and Neco Williams both went close to an equaliser, and just as Leicester thought they had navigated six minutes of injury time, Minamino chested down and picked his spot.
Although the Japanese international missed his penalty during the spot kicks, so did Luke Thomas and there was a sense of inevitability Leicester’s chance had gone.
Vardy could not take a penalty because of a hamstring injury. Instead, Ryan Bertrand tamely struck at Kelleher in sudden death and Jota duly obliged to start the Anfield celebrations.
“I am really, really happy with the performance, spirit and mentality,” said Klopp.
“It was difficult for us in the first half. We had to make changes.
“They help when you can bring in Diogo Jota in the shape he is in. Now we are in the semis. Great.”
If this is one of the last games before the fans are locked out again, it is typical of this stadium to bow out in such style.