IT IS not the European Cup, it is not the FA Cup, and it is a long way from the Premier League, but after almost six years without the kind of trophy-winning moment that used to be a regular event at their club, this will do for now for Liverpool. And who would have thought at the start of the day it would take this much effort for Steven Gerrard to finally get his hands on the Carling Cup?
Liverpool 2 (Skrtel '60, Kuyt '108)
Liverpool win on penalties 3-2.
Winning the first trophy of Kenny Dalglish's second coming, against a team sixth in the Championship, was never supposed to be as complicated as this. One envisaged a couple of goals for Liverpool and a smooth, controlled performance as befitting the one leading Premier League team that has really taken this competition seriously this season. Instead, by 6.45pm yesterday, Liverpool still did not have their hands on the trophy.
First, they gave the lead away to Cardiff on 20 minutes and spent the next 40 minutes chasing it. They scored the equaliser, then took the lead in extra time through substitute Dirk Kuyt and then, when the Football League were tying the red and white ribbons to the trophy, Ben Turner, a 23-year-old centre-half from Coventry, bundled an equaliser over the line and the lottery of penalties were upon Dalglish.
It was already a remarkable afternoon's football at Wembley by the time Steven Gerrard and then Charlie Adam missed the first two penalties and there were heads in hands all around the end bedecked in red. It was at that moment you wondered whether Dalglish's team had actually lost their nerve.
What decided it in the end? Probably the factor that one had previously expected to make the difference in the original 90 minutes: Liverpool's superior class finally told. Kuyt, Stewart Downing and Glen Johnson all scored their penalties while only two of Malky Mackay's players were successful from the spot, culminating in the decisive miss from substitute Anthony Gerrard.
What a dreadful moment for the cousin of Steven, the boy in his famous relative's shadow who was rejected by Everton and having fought his way back up the divisions did not make the Cardiff team yesterday. It is a cruel game sometimes. As the Liverpool players sprinted towards Pepe Reina to celebrate, Steven stopped briefly to attempt a consolation with his cousin but, really, what could he say?
It had been a monumental effort by Mackay's team who battled hard to make up for the deficit in talent. For Liverpool, the satisfaction was in the outcome, not the game. It is not the way they would have wanted to win it but neither was this a terrible performance. In many ways it was indicative of their season: patchy, but with the capacity for moments of surprising quality. Liverpool made the job that much harder when they conceded on 19 minutes. It came from the right side where Kyle McNaughton played the ball across the face of the area to Kenny Miller. He was afforded the time to slip the ball through the Liverpool defence where Joe Mason could comfortably stroke the ball in.
From the moment of Mason's goal until the 83rd minute of the game, the Championship team scarcely had a sight of Liverpool's goal. The barrage was relentless, peaking either side of the break until at last they scored on the hour mark. In the end it felt like sheer force of will that saw the ball over the line. From Downing's corner Andy Carroll won a header which Luis Suarez turned on to the post. When it rebounded back to Martin Skrtel he afforded himself a touch before scoring.
In the intervening period it had been frantic for Cardiff as they sought to protect their unexpected lead. At times it was a job to keep track of all the chances created by Liverpool. There was a notable tackle by the Cardiff captain Mark Hudson, who scooped the ball away from Carroll. Jordan Henderson failed to make contact with a Downing cross that Gerrard also miscued.
Andrew Taylor got in the way of Gerrard's shot just before half-time. Suarez jumped on a mistake by Hudson and had a shot pushed away by Tom Heaton. You get the picture. By the time Skrtel scored, Liverpool had two reasonable penalty appeals for handball rejected.
The pursuit of an equaliser appeared to take its toll physically and, having scored, Liverpool never quite recaptured the intensity until they raised their game in extra time. In fact, towards the end of normal time, Cardiff came back into the match.
With seven minutes left, the Cardiff centre-half Turner came in at the back post and only narrowly headed the ball wide. With two minutes left, Cowie slipped in Miller in the right channel and with a clear sight of goal he missed the target.
In extra time, Liverpool were better. Carroll, who had toiled hard in attack, came off for Kuyt. Kuyt struck a shot that looked to be going wide, the ball was returned straight to him by a poor clearance from Anthony Gerrard and Kuyt hit it first time inside the near post.
That really should have been it but Cardiff proved to be determined. They raised themselves for one last assault on the Liverpool goal and may even have surprised themselves to claim an equaliser with two minutes of the 120 to play remaining.
How did it happen? In the course of two successive corners, Kuyt first cleared off the line from substitute Filip Kiss and then, when the second corner came over, the Dutchman could not stay on his feet long enough to stop Turner from forcing the ball over the line from close range. Suddenly, Dalglish was choosing his penalty takers.
What drama followed. Heaton made a brilliant save from Gerrard, Charlie Adam missed and in between Miller missed for Cardiff. Not until Cowie hit the fourth penalty did anyone score. From then on Liverpool scored all three and only Peter Whittingham did so for Cardiff. Dalglish looked delighted but even he must have wondered why his team made it so hard for themselves.
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