Scott checks in from the road. And gives his money's worth...!:
What?! I’m going to be on an airplane during the Carling Cup Final between Liverpool and Cardiff City...?! Fortunately, this is 2012 and not 2002, so the wonder that is the internet allows me to view the game delayed on my laptop after hurrying Liz to our hotel room from the airport. I have just enough time to watch before the banquet begins. Or so I thought….
Cardiff applies some very early pressure, but Steven Gerrard dribbles the length of the field before dumping to Stuart Downing who lays off for Glen Johnson who rattles the crossbar with a curling shot that signals Liverpool’s desire to win their first trophy in six years. That foray is the first of many as the Reds maintain pressure and win so many corners that I begin to lose count.
Johnson at full fitness is a pleasure to watch, and he is balanced by Jose Enrique on the left with Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtl pairing in the middle in front of Pepe Reina. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll start up front, while Jordan Henderson, Downing, Charlie Adam and Gerrard fill in the middle. Craig Bellamy, despite the pre-game speculation of his inclusion in the squad -- owing to his connection to Cardiff -- is on the bench, along with a not-happy Dirk Kuyt and a patient (outwardly, at least) Jamie Carragher.
Aside from an occasional, albeit skillful, surge forward by the Blues, Liverpool is solidly in charge of the game over the first quarter hour, winning the ball back easily and creating chances. But the chances are ominously wasted, in that frustratingly Liverpudlian way. So, despite the Reds’ domination, a clearance is returned to a Cardiff striker who plays an excellent through ball, resulting in a nutmeg of Reina. The goal considerably stokes the volume in Wembley Stadium, with the fans in Blue interrupting their booing of Suarez to voice their euphoria and optimism.
After the goal, Liverpool resume their domination, but with too much angst that seems to congeal into desperation. Switching from soccer to Long Ball, an equalizing goal seems remote for the next few minutes. And when they calm themselves and work the ball up the field, they are met by a final third fiercely and densely dotted with blue. For their part, when Cardiff does counter, they are very effective, working the ball skillfully and quickly.
At the 22nd minute mark, Adam is just wide after some good buildup and, ten minutes later, Liverpool are having their way again. A viewer just tuning in would be shocked that they are losing. Even we viewers who have been watching all along are surprised.
Meanwhile, Downing is having a solid game, whipping in crosses and combining with Enrique effectively down the left sideline. In the 39th minute, it is just such a combination that sets Downing free down the left side, where he turns his defender completely around before crossing to Henderson who…… completely whiffs. Four minutes later, Gerrard finds Agger open on a free kick but the defender’s header, while struck solidly, is right at the ‘keeper.
The second half starts at a frantic pace with both sides stretching the field. It isn’t long before Bellamy, reportedly to the applause of both sets of fans, comes on for the completely ineffectual Henderson. Around the hour mark, Liverpool wins yet another corner. From the ensuing kick, Carroll knocks to Suarez who heads onto the post with the rebound falling for Skrtl who deftly takes a touch before slotting home.
Despite the increased volume and sea of red urging them on, Liverpool play more patiently now, with much more time on the ball, racking up corners at every turn. One of these, in the 74th minute, nearly bears fruit as the ball falls for Skrtl, who volleys wickedly but right at the ‘keeper.
Carroll is playing solidly if not excitingly, diligently and repeatedly knocking down the long ball and playing it back to an advancing midfielder. It’s not sexy, but it is good football, and leads to chances like Downing’s in the 78th minute, which forces a particularly spectacular save from the already busy Cardiff ‘keeper, Tom Heaton.
The game is an enigma to me: Liverpool is utterly dominating, creating chance after chance. And yet when Cardiff do get the ball and move forward, they are positively frightening, like when they miss a header opportunity in the 83rd minute. Not to be outdone, Suarez lays back for Adam who blisters a shot that is well-saved by Cardiff’s MVP goalie.
With regular time dwindling away, Carragher comes on for Agger just before Kenny Miller blows an opportunity for Cardiff from short distance after a free kick. This, before some humor when Carragher concedes a freekick near midfield, but -- knowing Liverpool need time to get back -- he runs away with the ball and is practically tackled as he falls down smothering the ball until he is sure the Reds have retreated to defend.
Oh boy… gonna be late for the banquet. I’ll just get dressed during extra time and only be a little late. The beginning of extra time begins where regular time left off – a shot from Suarez is saved well, yielding yet another corner, from which the Uruguayan’s header is cleared off the line.
Eager to step out of the shadow of his famous cousin, Anthony Gerrard makes it a family reunion, Wembley-style, when he comes on as a substitute for Cardiff. But when Kuyt comes on for Carroll just after, the look on his face is a reminder of what is at stake. And the hits keep coming – Bellamy goes very close but just over the bar, and Johnson is just wide before the end of the first half of extra time.
In an unprecedented turn of events, Liz is fully dressed and standing by the door, ready to go. When I inform her of the situation, she graciously accepts that we will be even later than I promised 30 minutes ago (and, I’m sure, stores this incident in her feminine memory bank for extraction at some critical point in the future).
The second half starts and it is not long before the eager Dutchman makes his mark. Kuyt shoots (crosses?) poorly but the rebound fortuitously comes back to him and his first-time lunge puts Liverpool ahead. Delighted with not only the result but also the fact that we will only be very late and not incredibly late for dinner, I don my sport coat and stand to watch the imminent victory.
But my confidence begins to wane when I see that Liverpool seem content to sit back and clear the ball long, as if beating back a parade of irritating flies. From a Cardiff corner, Kuyt clears dramatically off the line. But on the next corner, Cardiff win the scramble in front of goal and equalize just two minutes before the final whistle. UGH! Do I take off my jacket again or pause to watch the penalties later? Being a football fan (or any sports fan, for that matter), means making touch decisions. And as painful as it was, I have to leave the laptop in order to go mingle. Of course, it was not long before I am shaken back to the reality of football in America when, obviously eager to share the drama of the Carling Cup Final with the other banquet attendees, my exuberance is met with blank stares and segues. At least nobody will let the final result slip.
A penalty shoot out gets me very conflicted. On the one hand, it seems too arbitrary after 120 minutes of soccer brilliance, especially when multiple goals have been scored. But on the other hand, nothing is so gut-wrenchingly tense as five kicks for each side to determine who wins a trophy after months of games and having just played for two hours.
Slipping out of the banquet a little early, I didn’t even change my clothes before I hit play on the laptop. Steven Gerrard’s shot was well-struck but Tom Heaton pulled off his umpteenth incredible save of the night. Feeling it all start to slip away, a bucket of relief was thrown on me when Miller got Reina to go the wrong way but hit the post. 0-0 after one each.
Charlie Adam was next to confidently jog up to the ball and…..completely miss the target! You gotta be kidding me! When Cardiff converts their second try, hope is beating a hasty retreat, despite Dirk Kuyt making Liverpool’s first. But then the pendulum swings back again, as Cardiff hits another post before Downing is solid. When Cardiff makes their next one, it is tied 2-2 with one each left. Glen Johnson ripples the top netting leaving all the pressure on none other than Anthony Gerrard. The lesser-known cousin will continue in that proverbial shadow, missing the goal completely.
Liverpool won and I’m happy about that, but it was hard to celebrate too much right away, given how it happened and knowing that family dinners will continue to be hard for poor Anthony.
But now it is a few days later and, let’s face it, people remember who won and not how they won. Let this Cup be the first of two this year for Liverpool, and provide the momentum for a top 4 finish!
This is farlieonfootie for March 2.