LIVERPOOL 2 Cardiff City 2 (Liverpool win 3-2 on pens)
|Report by Dave Usher at Wembley|
Back in 2001 it was "Wine for my men, we ride at dawn" "On my signal unleash hell" and "What we do in life echoes in eternity". After this latest epic it was another 'Gladiator' quote that came to mind; "Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?" No-one does finals like us. No-one.
| Scorer(s) – Martin Skrtel, Dirk Kuyt|
Half Time - 0-1
Venue - Wembley Stadium
Date - Sun 26 Feb 2012
Star Man – Martin Skrtel
We don't do boring finals, we don't even do average finals, we only do classics. In fact we should be just given a bye to every final from now on just to make sure we're in it. We could be playing Barcelona or Boston United and it wouldn't matter, it's going right down to the wire and everyone is getting their money's worth. The last boring final we were in was against the mancs in 1996 and that was clearly their fault given that every one we've been in since has been edge of the seat stuff. Fuckin' mancs.
Of course we shouldn't be cutting things so fine against Cardiff, but this is what we do in finals isn't it? Just ask Birmingham and West Ham. It's not important how you win, just that you win. A week earlier we'd put six past a Championship side and this game was probably just as one sided. On another day we'd have scored six again, but then it wouldn't have been a final would it? Poor decision making in the final third combined with sloppy finishing by the reds and heroic defending from Cardiff ensured this was another classic final.
Ultimately the best team won but they could have had no complaints if they hadn't. It could have been so different. Kenny Miller missed a sitter late on that would have won it for Cardiff, we needlessly sat back after going 2-1 up and were virtually begging them to equalise, we then missed two penalties yet still won a shoot out even though our keeper didn't make a single save. This was so close to being an embarrassing defeat and Cardiff must be kicking themselves.
They beat themselves in that penalty shoot out by failing to hit the target with three of their kicks. None of it matters now, the trophy is in our cabinet and the record books will show that the 2012 League Cup was won by Liverpool. It won't say that Cardiff should have won it through Miller at the end, or that they bottled it in the shoot out. It will simply say that Liverpool won it, and when it comes to finals that's the only thing that matters.
Most people will have forgotten about the chance Marlon Harewood had late on in the 2006 FA Cup Final, or which West Ham players missed in the shoot out. They only remember who won and they remember Gerrard's Superman act that day. It's even become known as the 'Gerrard Final'. In years to come what will we remember from this day? There was no outstanding individual performer in the mould of Gerrard against West Ham, but what I'll remember most about this game is Dirk's contribution. It won't ever be known as the 'Kuyt Final', but his impact on the outcome of this game was massive. Fittingly so, he's delivered in so many big games down the years but has no medals to show for any of it. Until now.
He arrived at the club not long after our last trophy meaning he's our longest serving player yet to win something. It was therefore fitting that he played a key role in this success. The energy he brought off the bench in extra time, the goal he scored, the cool head he showed from the spot and just his general attitude in geeing up his team-mates and keeping everyone believing. He was the first one over to Gerrard and Adam after they missed, he was the first one over to Downing and Johnson when they scored. As far as team-mates go, you'd struggle to find a better one than Dirk and I can't think of a more deserving trophy winner than him.
It's brilliant for Kenny too, he was at the heart of so many great days at the old Wembley and it's fitting that he led us to our first trophy at the new one. I'm pleased for the likes of Skrtel and Agger to finally win a trophy with us too, as well as the new lads. Now they've experienced what it feels like winning trophies for Liverpool and celebrating in front of the fans, hopefully it will spur them on to more, starting with the FA Cup which we have as good a chance as anyone of winning.
Hopefully we won't be as wasteful against Stoke as we were in this game. So many chances came and went, whilst there were countless times the wrong option was chosen. When it needed a shot we saw a pass, when it needed a pass, we'd see someone shoot. Incredibly frustrating stuff, especially as the approach play was pretty good and we completely dominated virtually the entire game.
Maybe it would have turned out differently had Johnson's brilliant early effort been an inch or two lower. When that came back off the underside of the bar my first thought was that this might not be our day, especially when Gerrard blasted the rebound high over the bar. It deserved a goal as it was a terrific break and a superb shot from the full back. No surprise to see the woodwork denying us though is it, we should be used to it by now.
Downing was having a lot of success down the left, which shouldn't really come as a surprise given how he has performed previously against lower league opposition. He probably took one look at the silver haired full back he was up against and thought 'if I can't make an impact today I may as well give up'. I'm half joking, but Downing's form does often seem to depend on whether he believes he has the beating of the full back. When he starts well he usually has a good game. When he doesn't start well he ends up going missing and taking the safe option far too often.
The same criticism can usually be levelled at Henderson on the other side, he's another who plays it 'safe' too often. Unlike Downing though, this wasn't a good day for him. The game generally passed him by and he did did virtually nothing of note before he was subbed early in the second half. The only things I remember Henderson doing - or more specifically not doing - was whiffing at a great cross by Downing (Gerrard then blasted it over the bar again, which summed up his day) and twice refusing to shoot when it opened up for him.
That happened seconds before Cardiff took the lead, and whilst I'm in no way blaming that goal on Henderson, it did piss me off at the time. He was in a great position to get a shot away but spurned it twice and played the ball wide. The cross came in, it came to nothing and Cardiff went up the other end scored. Of course he could have shot and it could have been blocked and they could have gone down the field and scored anyway. As I say, I'm not pinning the goal on him at all but I just felt he didn't want to take responsibility and as usual went for the 'safe' option. It's a cup final, you have to seize the moment, not pass the buck.
I didn't think he should have been starting the game, but equally I'd have been amazed if he didn't. He was always going to be picked even though Bellamy, Kuyt, Spearing and Maxi were all more deserving based on what they've done this season. I'm not writing him off or saying get rid of him, I'm saying I don't think he's shown enough to warrant a regular place in the team.
Anyway, Cardiff went in front against the run of play but it wasn't a complete shock as they've had a couple of promising situations previous that didn't come to anything. The goal highlighted the one area of concern I had going into the game; the gap between our defence and midfield.
They found space far too easily, there was a huge gap between our centre midfielders and defence meaning Agger had to come out and press the man with the ball (Miller I think). When he did that it left a gap behind him for Joe Mason to run into and roll a shot past Reina. The goal stunned one half of the stadium and delighted the other. Cardiff's fans went nuts whilst we stood there wondering what the hell was going on.
The game continued in the same vein up until the break. Us on top, lots of possession, plenty of good situations but nothing at the end of it. Adam fizzed a shot inches wide and Agger headed straight at the keeper when he really should have scored.
The second half was much the same. Suarez had been very subdued in the first half but came more into it after the break. He had a shot across goal that was parried by the keeper, but Carroll had been guilty of ball watching and hadn't moved in to anticipate it. Both strikers were involved in the equaliser though, Carroll getting his head to Adam's corner and directing it towards Suarez, who's flicked header hit the inside of the post.
Just as everyone was thinking 'here we go again' Martin Skrtel arrived on the scene with a deft first touch and a cool finish through a crowd of players. He did really well actually, he made it look easy but a lot of centre halves would have just swung at it and hoped for the best. He took that like a striker, and he's becoming more of a goal threat every week now.
He nearly scored again not long afterwards, forcing a save from the keeper with another well struck effort. Downing was also denied by a full length save from Heaton as the reds piled on the pressure but couldn't get the winner.
Agger was forced off late on with an injury, meaning Carragher got to play in another final. Nice reward for him, he played in most of the games to get us to Wembley, but a pity for Agger and hopefully he won't be out for too long.
Cardiff weren't threatening us at all as they'd pretty much stopped even trying to get men forward and were desperately holding on. Set pieces were the only way they were going to hurt us as in open play they were unable to do anything and looked out on their feet.
However, even teams that are completely under the cosh tend to get at least one good chance at some stage, and Cardiff had a glorious one that Miller put narrowly over the bar. He has to score that, and that miss was more significant than any of the penalties they failed to convert in the shoot out. We dodged a bullet there, no doubt about it.
Extra time followed the same pattern the rest of the game had. Attack v defence. The tiring Carroll was replaced by Kuyt as Kenny used his final substitution, and the Dutchman's fresh legs and energy gave us an important lift and extra attacking impetus.
Carroll had not really been in the game, but he did little wrong either. He won the flick ons he needed to win, when the ball was played into his feet he laid it off to team-mates and was generally neat and tidy in his work. He won plenty of headers in his own box from Cardiff set pieces too, and I wouldn't say he had a bad game. He was pretty quiet though and it was the right thing to do taking him off. It could even have happened sooner really, Dirk was unlucky not to get more playing time I thought.
Eventually we managed to break the deadlock, as Kuyt's awful shot was cleared straight back to him and he lashed the rebound home. He took the shot so early that it caught the keeper by surprise and found the bottom corner. Dirk went mad, so did the fans behind the goal and it looked like the Cup was in the bag.
Unfortunately we then sat back and got into the mindset of just protecting what we had. I don't think it was a conscious decision by anyone, it just happened. Little things start happening that you wouldn't normally see. An example of it was Johnson was under a high ball under no pressure. Had we not been up 2-1 he'd have brought that ball down every time and then carried it forward. He didn't even look, he just knocked it into the stands.
I'm not singling him out, it's not like he was the reason we sat back and encouraged them to come at us. Overall I thought Johnson was outstanding actually, third only to Downing and Skrtel for me. It was symptomatic of the mindset we were in after finally getting in front though. We weren't keeping the ball anymore either.
Chances to counter attack were squandered by poor decision making and suddenly Cardiff began to force set pieces and they were able to get their big men forward. We were inviting trouble and we got it. It needed a fantastic goal-line clearance from Kuyt to prevent them scoring from a right wing corner, but the warning wasn't heeded and 30 seconds later they scored from an almost identical situation. You could argue there was a foul on Kuyt as the lad appeared to haul him down before he scored, but really we brought this on ourselves.
Credit to Cardiff's players, they were completely out on their feet and had been hanging on grimly for pens. Dirk's goal should have finished them off but they dug in, found some reserves of energy and threw everything they had at us and got their reward.
I didn't fancy us on pens at all. Our record in shootouts is second to none, but there are a couple of reasons I wasn't confident this time. Firstly, we've missed so many pens this season that it's a struggle picking five takers that I'd trust. Secondly, Pepe doesn't save pens any more. He won the 2006 shoot out for us, and I think he's saved just one penalty since (it may be more, I've not checked).
I felt a little bit better when I saw the pens would be taken down our end, but I still feared the worst. Gerrard stepped up first and struck a decent pen, but the keeper made a hell of a save. Uh-oh, the worst possible start. As the players all stood on the halfway line, Dirk broke rank to go and comfort his skipper.
Miller looked to have done everything right with his pen, he sent Pepe the wrong way and the ball was flying towards the corner. It was a little too close to the corner for him, as it struck the post. Massive let off for us, and surely Adam would take advantage of it? He's one of the few I would have trusted, but he missed by a mile. Couldn't believe that. Dirk once again had words for his team-mate, the big fucking hero.
The Cardiff lad buried his kick to put them 1-0 up, and Dirk simply had to score really as I don't think we could have recovered from another failure. His pen was just fucking brilliant, he's got bollocks like medicine balls has Dirk. He's missed one this season, but if I needed someone to score a penalty with my life on the line, I'd pick Kuyt over anybody.
The pressure was back on Cardiff and their next taker went the same way as Miller by hitting the woodwork. Up next, Stewart Downing. Now the biggest criticism levelled at Downing has been that he lacks the bottle to play for LFC. It's been a valid criticism I reckon as at times that has appeared to be the case. He went a long way to proving otherwise here though, firstly by having the balls to be one of the five takers, and secondly to keep his nerve and score with the pressure on him. The strange thing is when he stepped up I was convinced he'd bury it. Don't know why, but I did.
I knew Whittingham would score for Cardiff too, he was the one player for them I'd have put good money on scoring. Great penalty, and it was all down to the final taker from both sides now. Who would ours be? Prior to the shoot out starting I'd have expected one of either Suarez, Bellamy or Carragher to be in the five.
There was no way Suarez would have been on the fifth one though, so I knew it wouldn't be him. Bellamy probably wouldn't have been a wise choice either considering the added pressures on him due to his links to Cardiff. So I half expected to see Carra coming forward. I certainly didn't think it would be Johnson, and I'll be honest, I wasn't confident at all. Fantastic pen that though, unsaveable. Massive credit to him for that.
The pressure on Anthony Gerrard was huge now and I knew he wasn't going to score. I thought Reina would make a save though, the law of averages would suggest that he'd save one of them surely, and what better time to do it? Had it been on target he may well have got it, he went the right way and seemed to get right over to the corner of the goal, but the ball rolled wide and once again we'd pulled one out of the fire on penalties. Unbelievable.
Huge relief, not just for winning this particular game, but also for ending the six year trophyless run. It was important to stop that rot, we've seen with the title how easily six years can become ten years and ten can become fifteen and fifteen can become twenty etc.
We've got that monkey off our back now and there is definitely shades of 2001 about what is happening now. The main difference is we have no UEFA Cup to go for this time, but we could still win both domestic cups and then clinch a Champions League place on the final day as we did back then.
It's easy to just focus on this one particular game and be critical of how we struggled to overcome a side a division below us, but it's important not to forget how we got here in the first place. On the road in every round, wins at places like Stoke, Chelsea and Manchester City…. this was a fine achievement regardless of how we won it in the end.
It's also important not to overlook the part played by some players who didn't get on the field against Cardiff. I'm thinking about Maxi and Martin Kelly who both scored at Chelsea, Jay Spearing who was superb in numerous games prior to the final, Sebastian Coates who also impressed at Stamford Bridge, and of course Lucas who was struck down with a season ending injury whilst helping us beat Chelsea (a game in which he was fucking awesome).
Hopefully everyone who appeared in the earlier rounds of the competition will be rewarded with a medal, including Raul Meireles for his late cameo at Exeter. I'd like to see him get one but only on the condition he is made to wear it to training just so Fernando 'I've got more chance of winning medals at Chelsea' Torres has to look at it every day.
As for us, we're back on the trophy trail and we're two games away from another final. If we get there, hold onto your seats as it will surely be another wild ride. After all, it's what we do.
Team: Reina; Johnson, Skrtel, Agger (Carragher), Enrique; Henderson (Bellamy), Gerrard, Adam, Downing; Suarez, Carroll (Kuyt):