Liverpool met Cardiff City today in the finals of the Carling Cup as the Reds won their eighth League Cup title 2-2 (3-2) on penalties over a valiant Bluebird side. Liverpool won their first trophy of any kind in almost six years, since they last won the 2006 FA Cup title, ironically enough, at Cardiff’s own Millennium Stadium.
Cardiff returned to the League Cup finals for the first time since 2008 when they lost 1-0 to Portsmouth, but more significantly, they returned to Wembley Stadium for the first time since a harrowing defeat to Blackpool in the 2010 Championship promotion playoff.
Cardiff is once more in the promotion hunt and so victory on Sunday, while welcomed, was hardly the club’s biggest priority, not that one could tell from their performance. Joe Mason put the Bluebirds ahead in the 19th minute, before Martin Skrtel drew Liverpool even.
Liverpool enjoyed 65 percent of possession, but could do very little with the ball despite a decisive edge in shots, shots on goal and corner kicks. The game would go to extra time where the 89,000 fans at Wembley would see Dirk Kuyt put Liverpool ahead in the 108th minute.
Confoundingly, Liverpool then decided to go into a defensive shell, with just Luis Suárez alone up front, and conceding possession to their Championship foes. The tactic would proved decisive as Ben Turner poked a ball past Pepe Reina after a goal mouth scramble off a corner kick.
Tied at two goals apiece after extra time, the game would go to penalties, where the dead legs of players on both teams proved critical. In the end it was England international Glen Johnson who stepped up to seal the celebrations for Liverpool, but not before watching their skipper’s cousin, young Anthony Gerrard, kick wide for Cardiff.
For Kenny Dalglish, he had won the League Cup four times as a player, but this remained the one domestic title that eluded him as manager. Victory therefore filled a void in his managerial resume, while also securing his first title since returning as Liverpool manager at the start of 2011.
"It means a lot to me. More importantly it means a lot to a lot of people who have had to endure a few years when we've not been [to Wembley]... It is just reward for the loyalty and support they have shown." (see related video)
Victory means affirmation of the improvements Liverpool have made over the past year and an indication to the players as to how well they have done this season. The club has now won the Carling Cup, and advanced further in the FA Cup than they have in recent years. They now sit four points out of fourth place—a far cry from last season’s flirtation with the relegation zone.
Current progress aside, Steven Gerrard sees victory as a potential springboard to success:
"I honestly believe winning this cup will be the catalyst for a successful period for the club. It will give us the belief and confidence to deliver more. That's what happened back in 2001 - we picked up the League Cup and then went on to win the treble (with the FA Cup and UEFA Cup)."
Before one dismisses this as hopeful talk, there is precedence for what he says. Manchester United used that formula at the start of the 1990s when they won the FA Cup and League Cup within a couple of years, and used the confidence born of that early success to begin their climb, after a near 30-year hiatus, back to the League championship.
As Gerrard alluded, it also worked for Liverpool. After a sustained drought throughout the latter part of the 1990s into the new millennium, the club picked up the FA Cup, League Cup, Charity Shield, the UEFA Cup (Europa League Cup) and UEFA Super Cup, all in 2001.
Former defender, Mark Lawrenson agrees that victory can be an impetus to further success:
As players, you have a little taste of success and you think, "Whoa, how good is this?!"
While Ian Rush sees it as the potential dawn of a new era:
"[I]t could be the start of a new era for Liverpool - we've got the new owners, a new manager, new players and the backing of the fans. It will give everyone a big boost if they win on Sunday. It is the new Wembley and the Liverpool supporters have not been there before. Hopefully it will be a special day."
Dalglish had cautioned that a Liverpool victory was not a foregone conclusion, and Cardiff proved him sage in that regard. In the end, however, Liverpool’s poise proved superior as the club gave supporters a memorable first visit to the new Wembley Stadium (and this writer a perfect birthday present) with victory over Cardiff.