SEVEN weeks after the ecstasy of Carling Cup final glory, Liverpool will return to Wembley on Saturday.
This time there will be no silverware up for grabs, no opportunity for skipper Steven Gerrard to climb those 107 steps and hoist a trophy aloft.
Yet the stakes could hardly be any higher.
The neighbours from across Stanley Park await Kenny Dalglish’s side under that giant arch in the semi-final of the FA Cup.
Every Merseyside derby is eagerly anticipated but for the Reds the 218th chapter in this unique rivalry threatens to define a season. Triumph and all the frustration and negativity generated by a league campaign of such glaring under-achievement will be eased.
Beat Everton in the capital and go on to clinch the FA Cup for the eighth time next month and no-one would be able to brand this campaign one of failure.
It would represent Liverpool’s most trophy-laden season since 2001 and signing off with a Cup double would ensure supporters go into the summer with genuine hope about the direction the club is heading in.
The alternative scenario on Saturday doesn’t bear thinking about.
Defeat and the Reds’ campaign will be over. The inquest will begin into why a season which promised so much delivered so little.
Winning the Carling Cup would suddenly pale into insignificance. The memories of that dramatic victory over Cardiff City soured by the painful sight of losing to the Blues on that hallowed turf.
The focus would be on how a club which targeted Champions League qualification ended up enduring its worst run of league results for more than half a century to slip into mid-table mediocrity. And how Everton merely delivered the final killer blow to a season which had already gone off the rails.
Of course Liverpool will have history on their side. There’s good reason why Wembley used to be known as Anfield South.
Saturday will be the 33rd time the Reds have graced the national stadium. It’s been the setting for many of their greatest triumphs, including the 1986 and 1989 FA Cup final wins over Everton which Dalglish masterminded.
The Scot’s beaming smile which lit up Wembley after his winner against Bruges in the 1978 European Cup final was on display again when the Carling Cup was secured in February.
A proud tradition was re-established by Dalglish and having waited 16 years for a trip to Wembley the travelling Kop have been handed two in quick succession.
The Carling Cup didn’t act as the springboard supporters had hoped for. Rather than kick on in the league they have regressed, but in the Cups the Reds have looked like a very different beast.
They have saved their best for knockout football and proved that on their day they’re capable of beating anyone in the land. Dumping Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City out of the Cups already this season is testament to that.
There is also the small matter of the recent skirmishes with the Blues in Liverpool’s favour.
Gerrard’s stunning hat-trick in the 3-0 win at Anfield last month ensured the double was done following the 2-0 victory at Goodison in October.
Everton may have been under strength but it was still hopelessly one-sided. The Blues will pose a greater threat on Saturday but they will need to overcome a sizeable mental barrier considering their poor derby record under David Moyes.
On current form the Blues have to be classed as favourites. They have the momentum and the greater self-belief. But the question is can they deliver when the pressure is really on?
Liverpool have been there and done it already. Kopites will be banking on the sight of those royal blue shirts under the giant arch to trigger a performance they can be proud of. A season depends on it.