Supporting Liverpool used to be so easy. When I hitched my wagon to the big red train some 40 years ago, we won cups, we won Leagues, we didn’t lose possession every two minutes, and we dispatched lower-level teams with utter reliability. Now it’s just hour after hour of squeaky bum time. If I’d known I’d suffer from high blood pressure in my fifties I’d have chosen another team.
Outside Wembley prior to kick-off there were banners saying “This Is Anfield South.” Enough to give anyone a bad feeling. Beating Man City at home in the semi-final – piece of cake. On ‘home turf’ against a lower-ranked team – well, we haven’t always found that easy.
Yes, Liverpool owned the pitch, at least in the first half. Within two minutes Glen Johnson had once more consummated the Reds season-long love affair with the woodwork. After that Agger, Enrique and Johnson embarked on pitch-length runs in acres of space – then Liverpool conceded a goal, and couldn’t score. That’s been our season, just as it was in 2008-09.
To use management-bullshit-bingo-speak, Liverpool are the pioneers of outside-the-box thinking. As usual this season, they bossed the third quarter of the pitch with a cat’s cradle of precision passes, as many backward as forward; but they seemed to think it would be unsporting, like shooting a sitting duck, actually to get into the penalty area. Suárez kept finding space, but none of it was inside the box. And Carroll’s unerring ability to get precisely six inches from where he ought to be was once more in evidence. Meanwhile Cardiff defended like – well, like Liverpool used to in the days of Carra and Sami Hyypiä.
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But, as long as Cardiff never looked like extending their lead – and they rarely did – things didn’t look so bad. As we entered the second-half, there were only two questions: a) when would the substitutions start? and b) which one of the Liverpool back four was going to equalise? (One of the forwards? Don’t make me laugh.)
Early in the half came the substitution everybody had been waiting for; Bellamy for the characteristically anonymous Henderson. It wasn’t obvious precisely how the substitution led to the equaliser, but Bellamy, as usual, seemed to galvanise the team. A Downing corner soon discovered a Liverpool player who remembered where the net was: Martin Skrtel, who has now scored as many goals this season (4) as Fernando Torres (heh-heh! but Liverpool’s strikers don’t have much to heh-heh about).
If anyone was going to bury a winner, it would have been Liverpool, but Suárez, Gerrard and Co. found the goalmouth protected by the usual invisible forcefield (I wonder if NATO is researching just how this cosmic barrier is erected around every goal Liverpool are attacking?). But Cardiff were well worth their achievement of extra time, and had all LFC hearts in mouths with a late free-kick from which Kenny Miller could have won it.
Fortunately Kenny had belatedly bethought himself (103rd minute!) of the thoroughbred workhorse Dirk Kuyt, one player who doesn’t see the box as forbidden territory. It wasn’t hard to foresee Kuyt’s goal at the beginning of the second period of extra-time, which all Reds presumed would be the winner. But, as so often, Liverpool proved unable to defend a one-goal lead.
We discovered the flipside of Liverpool’s attacking edge coming largely from the back four; the defence relied hugely on the so-called forwards. Carroll tracks back industriously and is a rock in defence, looking like a slightly more competent Sotirios Kyrgiakos. But it couldn’t last forever. Five minutes from the end of extra-time Cardiff won their first corner, and then the second, and the third. Dirk Kuyt cleared off the line from the second, but didn’t quite manage it the third time – there’s a limit to what LFC can expect even from Kuyt. It was 2-2 and penalties.
Now, penalties haven’t exactly been a Liverpool speciality this season (these days we just close our eyes and think of Istanbul). Almost everybody’s missed one, because the hyper-reliable Stevie G hasn’t been on the field to take it. Now he was, but he happened to elicit a superb save from Tom Heaton. Fortunately Kenny Miller hit the post. But Charlie Adam punted the next into the orbit of Uranus, and it was all looking distinctly embarrassing. Fortunately Mynheer Dirk Reliable, Downing, and the unexpected Glen Johnson (whose penno was one of the best I’ve ever seen) did the biz, whereas poor Anthony Gerrard (cousin) skewed one wide, sending LFC fans into ecstasy and ensuring an interesting Gerrard family Christmas in December….
Let’s hope this is the shape of things to come. A Cup’s a Cup, and should be a platform for a return to the glory days. We don’t half make it hard for ourselves, but we usually come through in the end. Having said that, I love LFC dearly, but I’m going to sue them if they put me through much more of this….
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