PREVIEW-Soccer-Pochettino eyes first English trophy to ignite Chelsea project


By Martyn Herman

LONDON, Feb 23 (Reuters) - It is fair to say Mauricio Pochettino's first season in the Chelsea hot seat has been problematic, yet despite still wrestling with the size of the challenge, the Argentine can claim his first English silverware on Sunday.

Pochettino went close on numerous occasions during his time in charge of Tottenham Hotspur, falling short in two Premier League title chases, reaching a Champions League final, a League Cup final and losing two FA Cup semi-finals.

The 51-year-old was hired this season to turn Chelsea's expensively-assembled squad into Premier League title winners and put them back amongst Europe's elite.

That still seems a long way off with Chelsea in 10th place in the Premier League, 25 points behind Liverpool, who his side face in Sunday's League Cup final at Wembley.

Liverpool thrashed Chelsea 4-1 last month -- a result that illustrated the gap between the sides. But since then there are signs Pochettino is beginning to solve the Chelsea puzzle.

An FA Cup win over Aston Villa, a league win at Crystal Palace and a gritty draw with Manchester City mean Chelsea will start Sunday's showpiece in a positive frame of mind.

Liverpool's lengthy injury list also levels the playing field with the likes of Diogo Jota, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Alisson and Curtis Jones ruled out and forwards Mohamed Salah and Darwin Nunez and midfielder Dominik Szoboszlai facing fitness tests.

Chelsea have lost their last five domestic Cup finals at Wembley, including the League Cup and FA Cup to Liverpool in 2021-22, both matches decided by penalty shootouts.

Liverpool boss Juergen Klopp, however, labelled Chelsea favourites for Sunday's showdown in view of his injury list.

"If they are not favourites, we are not favourites," Pochettino joked on Friday. "They have experience to compete like a team, be involved in different finals. For many of our players, it's maybe their first final. He is clever enough."

Pochettino's first taste of an English domestic cup final was in 2015 when his Tottenham side lost to Chelsea in the League Cup. His Tottenham team also lost to Chelsea in the 2017 FA Cup semi-final -- another near-miss for a squad that Pochettino moulded into one of the best in Europe, but ultimately could not deliver silverware.

Chelsea are a vastly-different project for Pochettino who is still grappling to knit together a squad that cost hundreds of millions of pounds to assemble. But winning a sixth League Cup for Chelsea could be the spark that ignites his Stamford Bridge reign -- as it did for Jose Mourinho in his first spell in charge of Chelsea.

"It means a lot for us, the coaching staff to arrive in the final and to challenge a team like Liverpool and win our first title here," Pochettino told reporters on Friday.

"It's a dream for us, the coaching staff. We have 90 minutes to achieve that and we are going to fight. The team is ready. It's an amazing chance for us."

Liverpool are fighting on four fronts in what will be Klopp's final season and a record-extending 10th League Cup triumph would be the perfect launchpad for the final months of the season. But assistant manager Pep Lijnders says Chelsea, whatever their league position, will be a tough obstacle.

"It's always close with Chelsea. Special games need special performances," he said. Poch has already found his starting eleven and Cole Palmer has been one of the finds of the season.

"Conor Gallagher is a proper leader; a 10 but gets his shirt dirty as well. If you let them play between the lines with their technique it will be really hard."

(Reporting by Martyn Herman Editing by Toby Davis)

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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