Brave Bluebirds Shot Down by Resurgent Reds! A Cup Classic!

Liverpool defeated Cardiff City to win the League Cup at Wembley on Sunday afternoon,  bringing an end to the Anfield  club’s trophy drought and making Kenny Dalglish the only Liverpool manager to win all three domestic trophies. The Reds triumphed in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, following an enthralling two hours of play, which had left the scores locked together at 2-2. It was Steven Gerrard’s cousin,  Anthony, who missed the vital spot kick for Cardiff, and the disappointment for him and his team-mates was obvious. However, Malkay Mackay’s team can take huge pride from the way in which they performed, and the team from Wales may well be back at Wembley for a play-off final before the season is out.

Liverpool started the game very strongly, and almost took the lead within two minutes of the kick-off. Steven Gerrard won the ball on the edge of his own 18 yard box, a marauding 60 yard run ended with him slipping the ball to Stewart Downing, who moved it to Glen Johnson, in the inside left position. Johnson cut inside the defender and curled a delicious right foot shot, which beat Heaton and crashed off the underside of the crossbar and back out. The rebound fell to Gerrard, but he blazed over from twelve yards.

Liverpool were dominant, monopolising possession, at times in the opening  twenty minutes Cardiff were chasing shadows, however, totally against the run of play, it was the team from Wales who took the lead.  Cardiff’s most experienced player at big game level, Kenny Miller,  received the ball on the cusp of the Liverpool area, following a poor headed clearance from Skrtel. With two touches, one with either foot, he’d controlled it and fed a perfect ball to Joe Mason, who kept his head and finished calmly, through Reina’s legs. A fantastic goal from a Cardiff perspective, but really poor defending from Liverpool, for whom, both Skrtel and Enrique made costly errors.

Cardiff had given the travelling Bluebirds’ fans something to shout about, and, any ideas of a comfortable day for Liverpool fans evaporated in that instant.  Liverpool continued to dominate possession, Enrique and Downing combined to good effect on a number of occasions down the left hand side, and Downing, Liverpool’s man of the match, was producing the kind of display that brought him to Anfield in the first place. Twisting, turning, and terrorizing McNaughton at times with his pace and trickery, Downing produced several excellent crosses which deserved more than than the finishes they received; the most notable produced a fresh air shot from Jordan Henderson, who didn’t have a good day, and another  sky high effort from Gerrard, who’d left his shooting boots on the bus down.

Neither Andy Carroll nor Luis Suarez were having their best games in a red shirt, however they combined brilliantly about eight minutes before half time, and but for a magnificent, last ditch tackle by Mark Hudson, the big number 9 would surely have equalised for Liverpool. It was Daniel Agger, though, who had the Merseysiders most clear cut opportunity, just moments before the break. Steven Gerrard whipped in a glorious free-kick from the left hand side, right into the danger area.  Agger found himself totally unmarked, in the middle of the goal, six yards out, but he headed tamely into the arms of Heaton, when a better contact and placement would certainly have evened the score-line; a really poor miss.

The second half began in much the same vein as the first half had ended,  with Liverpool huffing and puffing but unable to blow the Cardiff house down,  and frustration was beginning to creep into certain players’ games. Henderson, not happy on the right, and not enjoying a fruitful afternoon, picked up a silly yellow card after a loose touch by him had conceded possession, this was the cue for Dalglish to make his first substitution. On 57 minutes he replaced Henderson with Craig Bellamy. The Cardiff born player, who was on loan at his home town club last season, was unlucky not to start the game,  and entered the field to cheers from both sets of fans; a nice touch.

Bellamy’s arrival did the trick, as moments later, Liverpool restored parity. Stewart Downing delivered the Reds umpteenth corner of the game, Andy Carroll, who’d been off target with all of his headers in the first half, rose to meet it and headed it goalward, Suarez, in front of Heaton, tried to divert it into the corner, only to see the ball come back off the inside of the post. Luckily for Liverpool, Skrtel reacted quickest and slid a cool finish through Heaton’s legs, atoning for his first half error.

For the next twenty minutes Liverpool pushed forward almost relentlessly, Downing, on the right following Bellamy’s introduction, was now running Taylor ragged, and was involved in a number of dangerous Liverpool moves, including sending an effort narrowly wide from 20 yards. Gerrard had an excellent chance from the edge of the area, leaning back however, he put it over.Suarez touch took him wide after a wayward defensive header had put him in the clear, and the resulting finish was disappointing.  The best chances to win the game in normal time fell to Cardiff though: first to Turner, who headed off target when unmarked at the far post; then to Kenny Miller who found himself in the same position that Mason had found himself in in the first half. Miller’s finish wasn’t as calm though, thumping the ball narrowly over under real pressure from Andy Carroll, of all people.

So to extra-time, and instantly Luis Suarez tested Heaton with a low drive, the ball was going wide, but Heaton, unable to take the chance, helped it on its way. From Stewart Downing’s corner the Uruguayan thought he’d given his team the lead, only to see his header cleared off the line by Taylor. Bellamy cut inside on his right foot and smashed a shot just over from 16 yards. Andy Carroll’s final contribution was to meet, yet another Liverpool corner, with a fabulous back header which, with Heaton beaten all ends up, sailed an inch wide of the far post.

Carroll was replaced by Kuyt, and the Dutchman’s energy and drive was exactly what the Merseysiders needed at that vital point in the match. With Cardiff tiring, Kuyt burst forward and hit a scuffed shot from twenty yards. His cross shot was cleared straight back to him by Anthony Gerrard,  who’d come on in extra time for Hudson, and Kuyt  didn’t make the same mistake twice, lashing a vicious shot from the edge of the area, which arrowed inside Heaton’s near post.

Liverpool had now only ten minutes to hold out for a crucial win in terms of their season, but the story wasn’t finished there, more twists were to follow. With time ticking away, Cardiff  desperately probed for an equaliser, and after Kuyt had cleared one effort from Anthony Gerrard off the line, a second corner in quick succession allowed Turner to bundle home from close range, albeit with the suspicion of having shoved Kuyt to the ground to aid with his cause. 2-2 , after 120 gruelling, pulsating minutes, for players, managers and fans of both teams alike.

To the penalties! Cardiff must’ve fancied their chances, having come through two shoot-outs already on route to this Wembley showpiece. Mark Heaton, hero of Cardiff’s shoot-out win over Palace in the semi-final , would have been forgiven for thinking a repeat was in store when he saved Liverpool’s first spot kick from, none other than, Steven Gerrard. It was an uncharacteristically imprecise penalty from the Liverpool Captain, which allowed Heaton to make the save, pushing the ball onto the bar and out. The Reds were granted a reprieve as Cardiff’s first penalty, from Kenny Miller, came back off the outside of the post. Up stepped Adam for Liverpool, despite being a dead ball specialist, the Scot never looked confident, and, leaning back as he connected, blazed the ball miles over the bar. Cowie, who’d had a good game, then scored for Cardiff, putting them in control, before the unflappable Kuyt calmed Liverpool nerves slightly with a commanding finish.

All square and the Welsh team with a penalty in hand. Rudy Gestede, who’d run his heart out for the Cardiff cause up front,  took the responsibility for the Bluebirds, but the weariness in his legs and perhaps his mind, was evident in his demeanour as he struck his effort onto the post and out. Stewart Downing planted his penalty firmly into the back of the net, to cap a fantastic all round performance, as did the impressive Peter Whittingingham for Cardiff, giving Reina no chance. Glen Johnson then marched forward for the Anfield club, and his emphatic finish into the top corner meant that Anthony Gerrard, cousin of Liverpool Captain, talisman and hero, Steven, had to score with Cardiff’s final penalty, or the Bluebirds would be beaten. Unfortunately for Anthony, the pressure proved to be too much, and he scuffed his right footed shot wide of Reina’s right hand post, prompting wild celebrations from the travelling Reds fans.

This was an epic final, fiercely contested between two clubs- players, managers, and fans- cut from the finest footballing cloth, played in a manner that perfectly embodied the nobler elements of this fabulous sport: courage, commitment and sportsmanship, so often lacking at the top level of professional sport in the current era.

The League Cup/Carling Cup, may be deemed the third most important competition in English football, but with clubs and players now being forced to realise that proper, tangible silverware is more important to fans as a measure of success then other achievements, it is a competition that is undoubtedly regaining its standing in the modern game. For Liverpool, deserving of success after their wonderful run in the competition- all done away from home, manager Kenny Dalglish will be hoping that this first trophy in six seasons can be a springboard for bigger and better things to come. For Cardiff and Malkay Mackay, they’ll be desperate to use Sunday as an incentive to push on in their promotion bid, which, if successful , will bring Cardiff up against Premier League opposition every week.

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