Chelsea's billion-pound project continues with many doubts

Burley: Chelsea blew a huge opportunity in Carabao Cup final (1:24)

Craig Burley says Chelsea blew a huge opportunity in their defeat to a depleted Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final. (1:24)

LONDON -- Chelsea's £1 billion project has focused on acquiring the world's best young talent, yet they were beaten at Wembley by a Liverpool team packed full of academy graduates.

Sunday's Carabao Cup final defeat leaves co-owners Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital facing the real prospect of reaching their second anniversary in May without any silverware -- or even qualification for European football -- to validate a methodology they believed would revolutionise the English game.

The FA Cup offers another route to success but that tightrope is already in view with Wednesday's fifth-round home tie against Leeds United up next. Chelsea are pursuing, the owners insist, a long-term strategy designed to create a permanent place among the challengers for the game's biggest prizes. And it might yet succeed.

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But as manager Mauricio Pochettino stood motionless on the touchline when the full-time whistle was blown, a picture of contemplative isolation set against the blurred backdrop of celebrating Liverpool red behind him, it was difficult to escape the conclusion that the pressure on the Chelsea head coach will only mount after an afternoon like this.

"The [players] need to feel the pain," Pochettino said. "We played for a trophy we didn't get and now, it is the same, what can you tell me to feel better? Nothing. They need to feel the pain like us and of course, they need to realise we need to work more, do better things, we need to improve.

"To compete in this level with this team that in the last five, six, seven years is competing for big things, it is about to arrive here and then feel what it means to play for a big trophy. I remember after three or four years at Liverpool, they lose the Champions League, the Europa League, they keep believing and moving the project [forward] and work on the next season stronger until they get what they wanted.

"That is a good example. If we want to challenge a team like Liverpool, it is not to be frustrated today because we didn't get the trophy. It is taking the example that we need to keep believing."

They appear a long way off from emulating Liverpool's success under manager Jurgen Klopp at present. In the same way that victory would have offered the Blues tangible proof of progress, losing will cast fresh doubt over the chances that this expensively assembled group can ever achieve the goals it has set.

It was a game of fine margins. Raheem Sterling's first-half strike was chalked off following an extremely tight offside call on Nicolas Jackson in the buildup. Virgil van Dijk thought he had scored from a set piece at the hour mark only for Wataru Endo to be deemed offside on VAR review. Caoimhin Kelleher made a string of excellent saves, first to deny Cole Palmer from point-blank range before denying Conor Gallagher later on, shortly after the England midfielder had hit the post. At the end of normal time, in Chelsea's most threatening spell, Kelleher did superbly to deny Palmer and then Christopher Nkunku in quick succession.

Harvey Elliott hit the woodwork at the other end before Van Dijk's glancing header won it two minutes from the end of extra time. Gallagher was Chelsea's best player but will rue those missed opportunities perhaps more than most. Chelsea ended with an expected goals figure of 2.4 compared with Liverpool's 1.82, meaning this can rank alongside several other games this season where Chelsea have failed to take their chances and then been punished at the other end.

The problem for Pochettino now is twofold: first, that it keeps happening, and second, that it happened here against a Liverpool team missing 11 first-team players and ending with the most teenagers (three) to appear in a League Cup final since 2007. While Klopp was left to introduce Bobby Clark, James McConnell and Jayden Danns -- before throwing on Jarell Quansah in extra time -- Pochettino could call on Mykhailo Mudryk, Noni Madueke, Nkunku and Trevoh Chalobah.

Chalobah is a homegrown product but the other three cost £170m alone. Chelsea have struggled badly with injuries this season and Pochettino's ability to impose an identity has been severely hampered by an inability to keep the core group fit for sustained periods. But Liverpool were down to the bare bones here and still had enough to see them off.

Pochettino, understandably, will point to the much longer period Klopp has had to work with his players, establishing a clear style that makes it easier for academy products to assimilate into. But Pochettino will ultimately be judged on how effectively he can mould these highly rated individuals into a team that can win trophies.

On commentary for Sky Sports, Gary Neville described Chelsea wilting in extra-time as "bottlejobs."

"I didn't hear what he said but if you compare the age of the two groups, I think it is similar," Pochettino said in response. That surely isn't quite the defence Pochettino thinks it is, however, given one profile is the product of a squad decimated by injury and the other was chosen by design at a phenomenal financial outlay.

"We are a young team and nothing to compare with Liverpool because they finished also with a few young players," Pochettino continued. "It is impossible to compare and he knows that. He knows the dynamics are completely different. But we are going to keep strong and believing in this project and see what we can do in the future."

There is widespread sympathy for the difficult situation Pochettino has walked into but he needs short-term results to sustain the argument that the bigger picture is coming together.

Instead, Chelsea secured a piece of unwanted history, becoming the first team ever to lose six successive English cup finals. Losing here also means Chelsea must still sweat over qualifying for Europe next season as the winners are guaranteed a place in the UEFA Europa Conference League playoffs.

Wednesday's game has assumed huge significance while the scramble to get into the Premier League top half continues. Winning with kids is possible and if Liverpool are doing it, further questions will be asked if Pochettino doesn't soon start doing the same.