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English League Cup semifinals in the balance as Liverpool, Middlesbrough protect slim 1st-leg leads

The English League Cup semifinals remain in the balance after the first legs, with second-tier Middlesbrough taking a 1-0 lead to Chelsea and Liverpool protecting a 2-1 advantage heading to Fulham.

Here’s some things to know ahead of the return matches at Chelsea on Tuesday and Fulham on Wednesday:

CHELSEA

Just when things appeared to be finally settling down at Chelsea under Mauricio Pochettino, the team threw in a dismal display in the first leg at Riverside Stadium to underline the work that still needs to be done to get back among England’s best. Still, Chelsea might be favored to reach the Feb. 25 final, with the cups offering the best — likely the only — chance of silverware this season while the team is languishing in ninth place in the Premier League. Chelsea is still in the FA Cup, but faces a tough fourth-round match against Aston Villa. Of all the expensive signings made over the past two years, the most shrewd might be Cole Palmer from Manchester City. The 21-year-old forward has scored five goals in his last six league games and is Chelsea’s most creative player. He did, however, miss a great chance in the first leg.

MIDDLESBROUGH

It has been 11 years since a team from outside the Premier League reached the League Cup final, with Bradford — then in the fourth tier — remarkably getting to the title match in 2013 before being hammered 5-0 by Swansea at Wembley Stadium. Middlesbrough, managed by former Manchester United and England midfielder Michael Carrick, is in a good position to do so after a sturdy display in the first leg despite losing two players to injury in the opening 20 minutes. With two more players — Isaiah Jones and Jonny Howson — joining the injury list, three players cup-tied and Australia internationals Riley McGree and Sam Silvera at the Asian Cup, Carrick’s options are extremely limited. A back-to-the-wall effort will likely be required at Stamford Bridge by ‘Boro, which is 11th in the 24-team Championship.

FULHAM

Fulham is in the League Cup semifinals for the first time and gave itself an outside chance of upsetting Liverpool thanks to the early goal by Willian at Anfield two weeks ago. Marco Silva’s team has only played once since then — a 1-0 defeat at Chelsea in the league — but has lost five of its last eight matches in all competitions. Still, a 2-1 home win over Arsenal came in that run so Fulham is capable of springing a surprise as it looks to eliminate Merseyside clubs in back-to-back rounds, having beaten Everton in a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals. Joao Palhinha, who almost joined Bayern Munich in August, looks to be staying at Fulham at least until the end of the season, when Liverpool could emerge as a potential option for the midfield anchorman. He’ll be in more demand if he helps Fulham get to a cup final.

LIVERPOOL

The Premier League leaders are the competition favorites as they seek a record-extending 10th League Cup title and a 4-0 league win over Bournemouth showed the form they are in, even without top scorer Mohamed Salah. Salah is at the Africa Cup of Nations with Egypt, though will soon be returning to England for treatment on a muscle injury. Liverpool is hardly missing him, winning all three games in Salah’s absence and scoring eight times in the process with the goals being spread around the team. The Reds have already beaten Fulham twice this season but both have been at home and by a one-goal margin. Fulham has held Liverpool to draws at Craven Cottage in each of the last two seasons so the semifinal is far from over, especially if Liverpool full backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson are still out injured.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

Steve Douglas, The Associated Press

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