Well, Liverpool had to do it the hard way, didn’t they?
Quite a few pre-match predictions had this as a comfortable Liverpool win—not a demolition, but comfortable nonetheless (mine was no exception).
But we should have known—it wouldn’t be a Liverpool final if it didn’t involve too many pulsating moments than are good for our hearts, too few goals or too much last-minute drama.
While we spectators, neutral or not, were in for an end-to-end footballing treat, there was plenty to take away from the events on the pitch.
Here are 10 things we learned from the Carling Cup showdown at Wembley—and feel free at add your own in the comments below.
Following his big-money transfer from Aston Villa last summer, Stewart Downing has spectacularly failed to deliver both on his promise to be Liverpool’s next great winger and the coaching staff’s hopes for him.
But has he finally turned the corner?
As with Andy Carroll, 2012 has seemed to be the "Year of the Kickstart" for Downing.
Having scored his first Liverpool goal against Oldham, he turned in a great performance against Brighton in the FA Cup, before producing a masterclass against Cardiff in the Carling Cup final.
Granted, all three performances were against lower-league opposition, but, particularly against Cardiff, he showed pace, dribbling, confidence and a willingness to run at his opponent that had been so lacking from a prototypical winger.
Early days, still, but might he prove to be a decent signing after all?
Alas, for all the raised expectations for Downing, so too has the excitement of Jordan Henderson’s promise dropped spectacularly after his anonymous display at Wembley.
Having been granted a starting role on the right, Henderson not only failed to display any of the qualities expected from a right midfielder (pace, crossing, tracking back), but he also managed to disappear for the best part of an hour’s worth of game time.
Henderson cut a lonely figure and a nervous wreck out on the Wembley pitch, before finally being taken off for Craig Bellamy on 58 minutes.
It was no surprise that Liverpool’s goals and attacking chances only came about after he returned to the bench.
While other erstwhile underperforming signings have been on a new lease of life recently, Henderson has gone the opposite way. He has a long way to go to justify his summer purchase.
After his “Captain’s Goal” that stirred that famous comeback against AC Milan and his otherworldly last-minute screamer against West Ham, the Wembley stage was set for Steven Gerrard to make his mark on the 2012 League Cup.
Sadly, he did not oblige.
Presented with quite a few opportunities to shoot, Gerrard opted to blast them over the bar—and went on to miss his penalty in the shootout.
The other aspects of his game—passing, set pieces and crossing—were all on display, but Gerrard might return to Anfield with a few questions for the kitman about his shooting boots.
Thirteen minutes into extra time, with the score tied at 1-1, Dirk Kuyt enters the fray.
Five minutes after his appearance off the bench, he slaloms through the Cardiff defence and knocks home a potential match-winner.
He follows up with a passionate celebration before returning to his workhorse duties, constantly harassing the Cardiff midfield.
Less than 10 minutes after his goal, he returns to clear a goal-bound header off the line. The resulting corner yields the eventual Cardiff equalizer. Penalties.
Cardiff are one penalty kick ahead. Kuyt must score.
Bottom left corner. Cool as a cucumber.
Before that, Steven Gerrard missed his; he trudges back to the halfway line. Kuyt tells him it’s okay and Liverpool will come back from his miss.
Dirk Kuyt: players’ player, captain’s captain.
Liverpool possess the second-meanest defensive record in the Premier League, and with good reason—Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger have matured as a duo and have restored Liverpool’s reputation as a fine defensive unit.
But they remain prone to lapses in concentration.
On several occasions already this season has the defence suddenly fallen asleep. Someone fails to track the run of his attacker and allows the ball to slip into space.
This has cost some valuable points in the league.
It could’ve cost Liverpool a League Cup.
Liverpool, a Premier League team vying for a top-four spot, fired in 39 shots, got 19 on target and scored two goals.
Cardiff City, a Championship team playing with 47 percent possession, fired in 11 shots, got seven of them on target, scored two goals and took the tie to penalties.
The answer to Liverpool’s somewhat underwhelming points tally this season was shown in full force at Wembley. The stunning amount of chances created belied the final goal tally, and their profligacy in front of goal could have been far more disastrous if Cardiff maintained their composure from the spot.
Kenny Dalglish will be hoping their six-goal blitz against Brighton was not a one-off in their quest to finish in the top four come the end of this season.
True to the pre-match predictions, Cardiff played like true underdogs: without fear and with plenty of resolve.
They flew out of the traps and took advantage of a nervous Liverpool start, and fired in an opening goal within 20 minutes.
The resolute fighting spirit coursed through every single Bluebird, and the lives-on-the-line defending, epitomized by the ubiquitous Kevin McNaughton, both frustrated and rushed Liverpool’s attack.
It was only fitting that their last-minute equalizer was headed in by Ben Turner, a fellow defender.
If Cardiff were to have snatched the win on penalties, it would have been because they fully deserved it.
Perhaps Cardiff, on the day, were mere representations of Malky Mackay, their talented young manager.
While Mackay was gracious in defeat, he insisted he was proud of his Cardiff troops, and rightly so.
A defender who earned his Scotland debut at the ripe old age of 32, Mackay was known for his defensive commitment and his tendency to pop up with an odd important goal. Sound familiar?
Mackay isn’t shy to hide his fondness for his Carling Cup adversary, Kenny Dalglish, either.
With a man-management style akin to his idol and a passion to follow in his and Sir Alex Ferguson’s footsteps, Mackay might just become the next great Scottish manager to make a mark in the English Premier League.
And who knows? Mackay might just make his Premier League impact with Cardiff.
Currently sitting in the Championship playoff places, Cardiff will look to increase their promotion push. As Mackay said in his post-match press conference, the manner of the League Cup defeat will only spur his team on in their fight for the Premier League.
But this is a Cardiff team that needs further polishing. Bereft of true star quality even in the Championship, they have relied on a solid and consistent team ethic.
This ethic brought them to the last stages of a cup final, but ultimately brought them the runners-up medal.
One or two flair players might just be enough to take them to the next level (think Adel Taarabt during QPR’s Championship-winning season)—and establish them as top-flight regulars alongside fellow Welsh outfit Swansea.
When the confetti has settled and the champagne has dried, people will remember this as a Carling Cup classic.
While Cardiff ultimately didn’t win it, the underdogs were so close to clinching a famous upset. They scored first and last, and gave Liverpool a real scare throughout the 120 minutes.
But Liverpool played their part as well. Dirk Kuyt clinched a sure-fire Liverpool win that was not to be, and their own penalty misses ensured a nerve-wracking finale to a heart-stopping affair.
And who can forget the standing ovation afforded to Craig Bellamy from both sets of fans?
It’s not quite as famous as the FA Cup’s, but romance still lives on in the English League Cup.
May the coming years bring just as much excitement.
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