It has been sixteen years since Liverpool Football Club last appeared at Wembley Stadium. Much has changed in that intervening decade and a half, not least of which is the fact that the stadium itself has been knocked down and replaced by the monument to modern football which continues to justify its existence through the medium of playing as many games there as physically possible. Today, though, the cards were stacked against Liverpool. The first piece of bad news came with the news that a derailed train was blacking those travelling to London from Merseyside. Virgin Trains, perhaps with a sense of irony too subtle for most of us to be able to fully take in, suggested that people drive to Stafford or Crewe to get trains from there instead. Yet if that felt cruel, we might perhaps take a moment to consider Cardiff City’s day, a day which took in every emotion from joy to despair, from frustration to hope, and back again.
The biggest surprise of the pre-match build-up was the decision of Kenny Dalglish to not start Craig Bellamy this afternoon. Bellamy, whose second half introduction reignited Liverpool’s afternoon at the exact point at which it had started to feel as if this grand day out was starting to slip away from Liverpool, was perhaps the man around whose neck the narrative of this match was always going to hang. An impish, incendiary force on the pitch, he was the right spark at the right time for Liverpool. That he was omitted from the starting line-up was something of a surprise, to say the least.
Cardiff City were not merely at Wembley to make up the numbers this afternoon, however. Liverpool supporters keen to belittle their opposition from the Championship this afternoon will have been reminded several times over the course of the afternoon that Cardiff City have made several visits to Wembley since it reopened for business. Malky McKay’s team has made more solid progress in the Championship this season and currently sits in sixth place table. Automatic promotion is starting to look like something of a pipe dream for this season – they are eight points behind second placed West Ham United with fourteen games each left to play – but Cardiff City have been knocking at the door of the Premier League for long enough to deserve a shot at it. If nothing else, this afternoon would be a measure of how far they have progressed of late.
After a slow start, though, Cardiff took the lead. They had to face down twenty minutes of incessant Liverpool pressure – including, after just two minutes, a curling shot from Glen Johnson which bounced out off the post – but, when the goal came, it was a goal the cut the Liverpool defence open like a hot knife through butter, a through-ball from McNaughton finding Joe Mason, who rolled the ball past Reina and in. Liverpool continued to labour up front, but Cardiff looked comfortable until half-time. The beginning of the second half saw Cardiff attempt to assert their will over proceedings with a little more force, and they controlled possession for much of its first fifteen minutes before Kenny Dalglish surrendered to the inevitable and introduced Craig Bellamy in place of the anonymous Jordan Henderson, to applause from all four corners of Wembley Stadium. A few minutes later, Liverpool got their equaliser – a corner flicked goal-wards by Luis Suarez which bounced out off the post for Martin Skrtel to drive past the Cardiff goalkeeper Heaton and in.
This should have been the beginning of the torrent – the point at which the gulf in quality between the two sides became apparent. Somehow, however, Cardiff City hang on throughout the remainder of normal time, and even had a golden opportunity to win the match with three minutes to play, when the ball fell to Keny Miller, unmarked and ten yards out, but in the heat of the moment he couldn’t keep his shot down and lifted his shot narrowly over Reina’s crossbar and over. It was a chance that Miller would have cause to regret by the end of extra-time.
Liverpool continued to push forward throughout the first period of extra-time without creating a great deal of opportunities. Cardiff City defended effectively in numbers, hounded and crowded Liverpool when they got into attacking positions, and the key moment of the half came with another substitution, this time with the ineffectual Andy Carroll being replaced by a man with a long history of digging Liverpool out of sticky situations – Dirk Kuyt. And Kuyt it was who, a couple of minutes into the second period of extra-time found an angle to shoot into the corner of the net.
From here, Liverpool should have gone on to win the match with comfort, but Cardiff’s hidden reserves of energy came to the fore in the final few minutes of extra-time when a succession of corner kicks, and eventually, with two minutes to play of the one hundred and twenty left to play, Ben Turner bundled the ball over the line from a couple of yards out to bring Cardiff level. It was no less than they deserved for all of their efforts, yet even this wouldn’t be enough to be a springboard to take the League Cup back to South Wales.
The penalty shoot-out, that most peculiarly cruel way of resolving a football match, ended up being a step too far for Cardiff City. The penalty kicks managed the full range of unlucky, from Steven Gerrard’s well-placed kick being brilliantly saved by Heaton, Kenny Miller losing his footing and striking the post and Charlie Adam driving the ball high enough over the crossbar to have been a more realistic contender to win the Rugby League Challenge Cup than this competition. With the scores level at two apiece with one kick left each, Glen Johnson gave Liverpool the decisive lead. Anthony Gerrard – yes, a cousin of Steven – rolled his shot wide of the post and Liverpool have their first trophy in six years.
Sometimes, however, the story of a cup final is not about the winners. Liverpool were obviously good value for their win, with the biggest surprise aspect of that being that it took them until a penalty shoot-out to manage it. The story of this afternoon’s match, however, will be remembered as the story of Cardiff City’s resilience, a never-say-die attitude which saw them battle back when defeat seemed inevitable to take the match to a penalty shoot-out in the first place. Football can be such a cruel game at times, and no-one will be feeling that cruelty in the way that Cardiff City’s players, officials and supporters will be this evening. Their job, now, is to retain their focus and keep pushing for that Premier League place. On the strength of today’s performance, it won’t look out of place should they manage it.
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