To Glory We Will Go

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 14, 2006, 09:26:47 PM

Those Cardiff Arms: how we shall miss their warm embrace.

The old Cardiff Arms Park, rebuilt as the Millennium Stadium, was the best hunting ground any Red could have hoped for.

If getting into the city on the day of a final was always a logistical nightmare, then at least the Reds managed to get out with the trophy more often than not. Four times in five cup finals it's been a Liverpool captain lifting the cup. That's a record to try and emulate at the new Wembley, should it ever be finished.

After a cup final such as the one experienced in Istanbul, my expectations were low heading to this game. I just had a bad sense about it, and felt we were on a hiding to nothing: no praise if we beat a dangerous West Ham side, a slating if we didn't. And besides, nothing could top May 25th 2005, and nothing could come close.

Or so I thought.

What was achieved on Saturday 13th May 2006 still ranks far lower in the grand scheme of things, given the FA Cup is not the European Cup (obviously), and that West Ham are not AC Milan by any stretch of the imagination. Add that Cardiff is most definitely not Istanbul, no matter how much Efes you've drunk, and that 2-0 down after 30 minutes to a good side is not the same as being 3-0 down at half-time to a superb one, and you have a list of reasons why this could not come close to the events of 12 months ago.

But that said, what a game of football! As one West Ham fan remarked later in the evening, 'Football was the winner'. Which is of course something you never say if your team has just won. For the record, 'Football' hasn't just been engraved onto the FA Cup on the 125th line – 'Liverpool Football Club' has.

Alan Pardew's West Ham, in their naivety, did something rather foolish: they turned themselves into the favourites to win the cup with more than 60 minutes remaining. Having been such massive underdogs – which of course was daft, given their quality and confidence – they put themselves in a position where it was their trophy to lose. And after a quite brilliant start, they duly lost it.

My hope that West Ham would freeze on the big occasion proved unfounded. Liverpool, weighed down with the pressure of being firm favourites, started nervously.

The Hammers repeated the excellent (and worrying) unlocking of the Reds' offside trap, as previously seen at Upton Park a few weeks ago. I half expected Teddy Sheringham to play, just to link with runners from deep, so effectively had he done so on April 26th. Instead, it was Dean Ashton who was performing the role to good effect.

West Ham's strikers were often happy to stand offside in the build-up, as the runner from deep – such as Scaloni for the first goal – was picked out in another area of the pitch, thus avoiding the linesman's flag. Eventually Carragher and Hyypia were unsure of just what to do, and it all got a bit messy. I was sitting pretty much in line with where the Reds were holding their line in the first half, and my nerves were not helped by the linesman getting two early decisions wrong.

Yet this is no one-dimensional Liverpool outfit, capable only of defending. When the team's back line is having a rare bad day at the office, its attacking players come to the fore.

There's been the usual nonsense that the Reds are a one-man team. Before the weekend it was also a different kind of nonsense: that Gerrard never performs on the big occasion (as postulated by some Liverpool fans).

While all players will struggle to impose themselves as much in games against the toughest opponents, given there's less space and less overall possession of the ball against the very best sides, Gerrard has surely put this last myth to rest. Against AC Milan he came to the fore in the biggest game of his career, against a world-class side. This year he roused a team struggling against free-spirited underdogs. He has now scored five goals in cup finals for Liverpool, all of them crucial.

The one-man team stuff will never go away. Take Rooney out of Manchester United's team, Lampard out of Chelsea's and Henry out of Arsenal's and all three units will be far weaker. That's the point about your best players: they are your best players. It's really that simple. If you didn't rely on them, and didn't miss them in their absence, why have them in the first place? Should Liverpool call back Antonio Nunez, because we never came to rely on him?

It is also an insult to all the other Liverpool players, especially Carragher, Hyypia, Alonso, Sissoko, Finnan, Fowler and Reina, all of whom are first-rate players, while many of the others, such as Crouch, Cissé, Riise and Luis Garcia (whose goals have won plenty of big matches since he joined) have played key roles in the excellent league and FA Cup performances this season – with the record of 82 points and an FA Cup triumph up there with the best in the club's history.

Gerrard remains the club's most-crucial match-winner, and has had a phenomenal season in front of goal. Footballers this good are like gold dust, and rather than people compare the rest of the team unfavourably to him, which is utterly pointless, everyone should be grateful that he exists at all. There is no better all-rounder in the world at present, and there possibly never has been.

As brilliant and essential as Gerrard has naturally been, the other players scored more than 80 goals between them, with Cissé, Crouch and Luis Garcia sharing 43 between them. The defence kept 33 clean sheets. Sissoko made 78 million tackles. Alonso passed the ball as well as anyone in England. And Jamie Carragher never slacked off for one nanosecond in nearly 60 matches.

We're also talking about 'failures' who in other teams would be considered successes. I've always felt Cissé is better than the player we saw for much of this season; but that both rotation and the manager's more distant man-management style did not sit easily with the excitable Frenchman.

Maybe it will be his last game in a red shirt. If it is, he ends his spell at Liverpool with a goal that proves his ability to produce more cultured finishes. What I liked most about it was the way he adjusted his feet when running onto the ball – taking a slightly shorter stride just ahead of making the strike, to make sure he didn't get too far ahead of the pass; executing a very difficult technique to perfection.

While doubts about his overall quality remain – and yet again he was a mixed bag over the course of a game – he can at least point to a fine goalscoring record with the club and an improving assist rate. Only Benítez knows if Cissé has frustrated on one occasion too many. Maybe the striker(-cum-winger) is finally adapting to Benítez's methods and has taken on board the repeated exhortations. He has certainly improved from the dark days of this winter, when he was of no use to anyone.

But Cissé remains a player who can raise significant funds if sold, especially to an increasingly cash-rich French league, and while any team could do a lot worse than Cissé, who fell just one short of the magical 20-goal mark despite relatively little playing time up front, the suspicion remains the Reds could (and need to) do better. Benítez is not afraid to sell very good players if he thinks he can find even better ones.

Cissé wasn't the only player to have an up-and-down cup final. Pepe Reina had a difficult day, but despite one bad error and one debatable misjudgement he pulled off four superb saves, and that's not including the last two penalty stops.

Konchesky's cross that went straight in was reminiscent of Cissé's effort against Portsmouth at Anfield earlier in the season, and sometimes they happen. It was no more saveable than Gerrard's thunderbolt in injury time, given that all keepers have to take a starting position that anticipates the cross – which 99 times out of 100 Konchesky's effort would have remained. If keepers started taking up positions at the back post on the off chance one will loop in, they'd concede 50 goals a game at their near post.

Even if you mark him down with two errors and not one, his contribution to the win was massive. The double-save at the very start of the second half proved his alertness from 'cold'. The tip onto the post in the 120th minute shows his mental toughness. And the save from the Zamora's penalty was quite awesome.

Well deserved

So did Liverpool deserve to win? Well, fairness and victory are two fairly unrelated concepts; it's clear that the two do not automatically go hand-in-hand.

It has to be said that any team that claws its way back into the game like the Reds did deserves to win if the dice ultimately rolls in a favourable way. Equally, any team that plays as well as West Ham managed for much of the match has an equal claim.

Given West Ham were the less experienced and less-féted side, and the only team on the day to play to its true potential, maybe they deserved to win. But then fortune was on the Hammers' side with all three of the goals, only one of which was intended and that itself from a gift from Reina.

So, clearly Liverpool deserved to win based on the quality of all three of the team's goals: each was worthy of winning the FA Cup on its own. (As was Reina's remarkable last-minute fingertip save, from yet another lucky deflection). Gerrard's goal deep in injury time, struck directly in line with where I was sitting, was as sweet a strike as I have ever seen.

Indeed, Liverpool scored four perfectly good goals – including Peter Crouch's wrongly disallowed side-footed volley; but as it came just before Cissé's it would not have altered the balance of play. But it still goes to show that, without a shadow of doubt, Liverpool's finishing marked them out as the more deserving of victory.

. . . Then again, any team that defends as uncharacteristically poorly and makes as many mistakes as did the Reds previously trustworthy back five can hardly be fully deserving of the spoils. And Mr Reliable set the tone.

At the time I thought Carragher had meant to turn the ball behind for a corner and sliced it into his own net, but only when viewing the video did I notice he was withdrawing his foot to let the ball roll to Reina, who presumably gave the call, only for it to strike Carra's standing leg. More a case of bad luck than rank bad play.

By contrast, West Ham were relatively mistake-free. So that's it – West Ham definitely deserved to win. Unlucky Hammers it is. But then again, after 62 games in a gruelling season, the Reds' character, determination and refusal to be beaten was there to be seen in extra time, when barely five outfield players were still able to walk.

Not only did players like Finnan, Gerrard, Cissé, Carragher and Sissoko chase balls and make tackles and passes when lame (and I don't believe players fake injuries in cup finals, unless their team is being spanked), but the Reds had the far better of the additional 30 minutes.

This after two of the team's best players had left the pitch due to enforced substitutions: Kewell limping out of his third consecutive final, this time with the fans more sympathetic, and Xabi Alonso's ankle problem clearly causing him discomfort. Fortunately, Didi Hamann was superb after his introduction.

If penalties aren't the fairest way to decide things, then this was a game where no other alternative could be sought: playing until one team scored the "next goal's the winner" could have resulted in a nought-a-side match. Deciding it with free runs at goal from the halfway line would have been pointless as no one would make it to the area.

Penalties are often won by the team that is happiest to still be in with a shout of winning the match. The team that should have had the game won in normal time is usually the one that feels the pressure. In this instance, Liverpool were clearly the happier for spot kicks, given the injuries and the fact that West Ham had never been behind in the game. Unfair or not, maybe it was just down to fate.

You can go all the way back to Luton, and another remarkable comeback; as with Gerrard's thunderous tie-winning strike against Olympiakos in last season's Champions League ("You beauty!"), it set the tone for the rest of the competition.

Add in a couple of Luis Garcia-inspired semi-final wins over Chelsea, and you have cause for felicidades.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

Final 100 limited edition signed pre-order copies of "Red Revival" available from www.paultomkins.com. The book is available in shops from June 20th, but will be sent out to people who order direct between June 6th and 13th. 

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