So, yeah, cup finals. Wow. Nothing ever comes easy.
Only this side could beat league leaders Manchester City over two legs in the semi-finals – as well as two tough opponents away from home in the two previous rounds – and then barely beat Cardiff on penalties in this final. This was a breathless, heart-stopping, soul-crushing, exhilarating microcosm of the season so far. A microcosm that ended in the happiest way possible, with jubilant hands on silverware. Which, hopefully, is an excellent omen.
Liverpool took 39 shots compared to Cardiff's 11. Liverpool hit the bar in the second minute, and had a shot somehow cleared off the line in the second minute of extra time. Liverpool poked, prodded, created chances, and fumbled to break through. The first half was pure frustration, as we've seen time and time and time and time again, wasting openings both before and after Cardiff took lead against the run of play.
It was nearly the same XI which beat Brighton, with Agger replacing Carragher, but Liverpool shifted to a 4-4-2 which matched Cardiff's. Despite Liverpool chances, either created by Downing or shots from distance, Cardiff coped fair easily with men behind the ball and another poor performance from Henderson when on the right. Cardiff's goal was well worked but regrettable, as Liverpool gave the opposition space to pass before McNaughton set up Miller who set up Mason, threading a through-ball behind the defense when Agger stepped forward in an ill-concieved attempt to close down.
Knocked back once again, Liverpool's frustration was all too tangible as Cardiff defended diligently, comfortable piling men in their final third with the lead, daring Liverpool to break them down. Which they unsurprisingly struggled to do. Liverpool brought Bellamy on for the disappointing Henderson in the 57th and were level three minutes later, but it was due to a set play rather than a change in style; Suarez hit the bar when re-directing Carroll's flick of Downing's corner, with Skrtel well-placed to cram in the rebound.
Instead of using the equalizer as a platform, pushing past tiring lower-league opponents, Cardiff should have won the game in normal time. As usual, Liverpool had chances – Skrtel, Downing, and Adam had shots saved, Gerrard sailed one well over, Suarez couldn't control when released by an out-of-character defensive mistake – but Turner headed wide from point-blank range in 83rd before Miller blasted over from eight yards out with both time and space.
There only looked to be one winner in extra time; Liverpool had Suarez's header cleared off the line early on before Carroll, Bellamy, and Johnson put efforts narrowly wide. Then, three minutes into the second 15, Kuyt incomprehensibly gave Liverpool the lead. Bursting between two defenders, his initial attempt was a better cross than shot, but a deflection off a defender gave the Dutchman a second chance. He improbably seized it with both hands, hammering an unstoppable nail past Heaton despite losing his footing. He probably couldn't replicate it on a bet and it might well be the best goal he's scored for the club. If anyone deserved it. Big. Game. Player.
But again, Cardiff weren't beaten. And, almost unforgivably, Liverpool seemed to think the game was won with 12 minutes to play and an entire season-long catalog of evidence that things that can go wrong usually will. This Cardiff goal, with two minutes left, was absolutely deserved. Liverpool nearly conceded seconds earlier, cleared off the line by goal-scorer Kuyt. But he couldn't keep out the subsequent set play, scrambled in by Turner from two yards out.
Which led to the watching-through-hands-over-eyes lottery. And which started in the worst possible manner when Heaton made the best penalty save I've ever seen, somehow keeping out Gerrard's fiercely-taken spot kick. Miller missed Cardiff's first, but then Adam skied his effort out of the stadium. Cowie and Kuyt struck smartly before Gestede also hit the post, leaving it tied 1-1 after three kicks. Downing and Johnson both notched well-taken penalties despite the handicap of each's nationality, bracketing Wittingham's stone-cold finish. Then, substitute Anthony Gerrard – Cousin of Steven – walked to the spot. And horribly pushed a tame effort wide, probably saved by Reina even if on target. Cue wild celebrations coupled with agonizing heartbreak.
It goes without saying the result's infinitely harsh on Cardiff, especially the stomach punch that is a penalty loss. On the whole, they were tactically better than Liverpool and battled harder than Liverpool. Don't get me wrong, Liverpool battled as well, steadily working their way to the equalizer before taking an extra-time lead, but conceding with basically seconds to play is an absolute sin.
Liverpool's talent gap and cruel fortune won on the day. Even without Gerrard, Adam, Suarez, or Carroll at their best, other players stepped up when needed. Downing had his best game for Liverpool, Skrtel scored the crucial equalizer while maintaining his baby-killing je ne sais quoi in defense, Kuyt and Bellamy had starring roles off the bench, and Johnson and Enrique overlapped threateningly. And you can't fault the effort of anyone involved, except, of course, in the aftermath of what looked to be Liverpool's winner.
As feared, this was an awful lot like the league cup final against Birmingham 11 years ago. But while Liverpool made harder work of it than either expected or needed, Liverpool still won. Now, the club need to replicate that season's accomplishment by using this win to push on in the FA Cup and the chase for fourth.