Neville’s ‘blue billion-pound bottle jobs’ line will immortalise Chelsea’s pain

Neville’s ‘blue billion-pound bottle jobs’ line will immortalise Chelsea’s pain

Not all losses are created equal — and no defeat in football is worse than a banter one.

“In extra time, it’s been Klopp’s kids against the blue billion-pound bottle jobs,” said Sky Sports co-commentator Gary Neville, succinctly and indisputably establishing the dominant narrative of a surreal Carabao Cup final almost as soon as Virgil van Dijk’s glanced header had settled in the far corner of Djordje Petrovic’s net.

Liverpool had not just beaten Chelsea at Wembley (again), they had done so in a manner that validated the “mentality monsters” culture that Jurgen Klopp has cultivated — apparently throughout the age groups at Kirkby as well as the first team — over the last nine years, while mercilessly exposing the fatal flaws in the lavish investment project at Stamford Bridge funded by Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital over the past two.

In the bowels of Wembley after the match, a despondent Mauricio Pochettino wearily assumed the task of pointing out the nuance in the narrative. “I don’t hear what he said but if you compare the age of the two groups, I think it is similar,” Chelsea’s head coach said when asked about Neville’s line. “Look, I have a good relationship with Gary. I don’t know how I can take his opinion, but I respect his opinion.

“We are a young team. Nothing to compare with Liverpool because they also finished with young players. It’s impossible to compare, and he knows that the dynamics are completely different. We were playing Liverpool and Chelsea, Chelsea and Liverpool, and I don’t think it’s fair to speak in this way.”

The youth vs experience dynamic at Wembley was not as clear-cut as Neville made out. Liverpool’s on-pitch XI had an older average age than Chelsea’s at the start of the match and at the start of extra time. Van Dijk, a 32-year-old now with 11 major trophies to his name, was the outstanding outfield player throughout and found the net with two headers worthy of winning a final, only one of which survived VAR review.

Cole Palmer is denied by Caoimhin Kelleher (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

But the counter-argument becomes hard to sustain when the other team includes two 19-year-olds, Bobby Clark and James McConnell, who have each played fewer than 10 professional games and another (Jayden Danns) who was making his second senior appearance. Chelsea undoubtedly lost to several kids; the more important question is: did they bottle it?

Chelsea showed unmistakeable signs of nerves at Wembley. Axel Disasi twice ignited Liverpool transition attacks by fumbling the ball under little pressure. Malo Gusto, usually so sure-footed, controlled passes straight out of play on several occasions. Levi Colwill booted an attempted pass out to Ben Chilwell miles upfield and had to be told to calm down by Enzo Fernandez, who played sloppy passes with startling frequency.

Further forward, Conor Gallagher wrestled with an eerily similar cocktail of bad luck and poor composure in front of goal that afflicted fellow Cobham graduate Mason Mount against the same opponents in the same stadium in 2022.

Gallagher fluffed several chances (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Nevertheless, as the clock ticked towards the end of 90 minutes it was Chelsea who looked likelier winners, with Cole Palmer picking apart a Liverpool team whose legs appeared to have gone. It was at this point that Klopp made a decision that arguably no other elite coach would have made: to place the fate of a major trophy in the hands of unproven youth rather than go into retreat with experience and play for penalties.

His choice transformed this Carabao Cup final into the spiritual sequel of Chelsea’s bizarre 4-1 win over nine-man Tottenham Hotspur in November: a situation where convincing victory is the only acceptable outcome and anything less brings total humiliation. Pochettino had to guide his team through 20 nervy, aimless minutes that night before they overcame the fear of looking ridiculous — of being on the receiving end of a banter loss — and got on with winning the game.

Klopp’s own “it’s just who we are, mate” moment seemed to sink Chelsea into a similar mental crisis at Wembley that lasted for most of extra time, compounded by their fading energy levels. At half-time of their pitifully tentative showing in the added period all of Chilwell, Disasi and Moises Caicedo could be seen prostrate on the pitch receiving attention for cramp.

Not losing superseded winning as Chelsea’s top priority. “The team started to feel that maybe the penalties will be good for us,” said Pochettino, making an admission of weakness that is being held against him and this group of players in the acrimonious aftermath.

Pochettino’s face sums up the Chelsea mood (Getty Images)

Finals define the clubs, players and coaches who contest them. Klopp has lost his fair share over the years but never through passivity, and that ironclad commitment to the idea of who Liverpool are carried the day at Wembley. Chelsea’s identity as expert winners of finals began to slip in the final years of Roman Abramovich’s ownership; this is now seven cup final defeats in their last eight visits to the national stadium, and six in a row.

Doubts about Pochettino’s ability to reverse that trend will only intensify. In five years at Tottenham, he built impressive teams who fell just short of winning and despite his avowed emphasis on the power of positive energy, his callow Chelsea were undone by Klopp’s peerless mastery of psychological momentum.

Liverpool at full strength are vastly better than Chelsea but they won the Carabao Cup final not through superior talent, but superior mentality, coupled with an unmistakeable sense of identity that binds the first team and academy together — in other words, things that Boehly and Clearlake’s money cannot simply buy.

“They need to feel the pain,” Pochettino said of his Chelsea players. The pain of this banter loss will be hard to shift, immortalised by Neville’s brutal words.

(Top image: Pochettino changes were not as effective as Klopp’s. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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Bruce Killigang

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