Cardiff 2/26/2012: Looking Forward

Well. Kenny Dalglish and the boys were never going to heed my advice, were they? Liverpool were always going to do things the hard way, weren’t they?

It’s never a Liverpool cup final unless it involves heart attacks and last-minute drama, and so it proved.

That makes it three out of three for me in terms of cup finals, and three of the most epic yet: Istanbul, Cardiff and now Wembley.

I have to say up front that this was not the trophy-winning team I had dreamed of seeing for Liverpool. My all-time favorites remain the spine of Rafa Benitez’s glory days, those years with Javier Mascherano marshalling the defence, Xabi Alonso dictating play, and Steven Gerrard in perfect tandem with Fernando Torres, and I maintain that if we had that as our current spine, we’d be further up the League table right now.

Much as I wanted to see a Liverpool trophy win, it wasn’t really with this team in mind.

For all of Dalglish’s man management genius, I hadn’t seen him do the business in Europe like Rafa did. Charlie Adam is no Alonso. Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing have been so woefully below-par that I didn’t want to see them on the field, especially when much more capable replacements were on the bench. And Luis Suarez – or should that be Andy Carroll? – is no Torres.

I was looking forward to the final, but not excited. This was supposed to be a routine win over Championship opposition, surely a much easier opponent than Manchester City or Chelsea.

But of course, the romance of a cup competition took over – and what a performance Cardiff City put in.

And as I was increasingly irate at the ease with which Cardiff cut Liverpool open for the first goal, the infuriating anonymity of Henderson – both of our goals, and the majority of our good attacking play, came after he was taken off – the ineffectiveness of Suarez, even the declining shooting ability of Gerrard – so too did I start to play for the shirt.

Because, amidst all the frustration and the impatience, I also saw Downing put in his best shift in a Liverpool shirt – and believe me, given all I’ve thrown his way this season, he was phenomenal against Cardiff – and I witnessed, for the umpteenth time, the heroics of Dirk Kuyt.

We should have known. This was a man who has always placed team ahead of self, the man who, purely based on workrate and positional awareness, found himself in the right place at the right time, pulling off the right shot with the right accuracy. Liverpool’s resident clutch master. This was a man who, after seeing his captain miss the first penalty in the shootout, encouraged him and told him his team would be back in it. The captain’s captain. This was a man who, knowing he had to score his penalty, brushed aside the pressure and coolly slotted home his. The nerves of steel.

To be sure, the poor (though heart-stopping) manner of this victory continues to paper over the cracks that have troubled the team this entire season. On a day where Cardiff scored 2 from 7 shots on goal and 11 in total, Liverpool registered the same goal tally while hitting 19 on goal and 39 in total. When the confetti has settled and the champagne has dried, everyone will recognize again that this profligacy is simply not good enough.

And it certainly seemed that Liverpool were intent on making things hard for themselves, that they play better as the underdogs. Penalty shootouts might have been kind to Liverpool over the years, but it won’t remain that way every time.

But when that kickoff whistle blew, I threw myself into the game, cheering every constructive move and protesting every bad play. When Martin Skrtel hit his equalizer, I matched his fervor in celebrating. When the penalties were missed, I held my head in my hands and lamented. And when Anthony Gerrard missed the last penalty, I ran around the house with my arms raised.

Because winning is winning is winning.

All that matters now is where Liverpool go from here and how we do it. Looking forward is always the priority.

Except, of course, we now have the English calendar’s first trophy behind us.

What a relief.