So close, yet so far. The Liverpool of old threatened to reappear, but fell just short of another fabled cup final comeback. By millimeters, and "aided" by the woodwork. Just not good enough to make up for self-inflicted mistakes, both individual and tactical, but painfully, frustratingly close. This season could barely be better encapsulated. And the universe has a very long memory; what feels like eons since Garcia's "ghost goal" seems like seconds to the cosmos. The cosmos want to be balanced.
Maybe Liverpool should have played 4-4-2 after all, eh? They couldn't make up for the first hour's hapless errors and general impotence with a furious final thirty minutes.
As threatened, easily predictable, it was always going to be a game decided by the narrowest of margins. An unsurprisingly cagey start, then Liverpool's first mistake ruthlessly punished, with additional credit to poor defending. Spearing with a defenseless giveaway, Enrique beaten for pace, positioning, and strength, Reina failing to adequately protect his near post, one of the goalkeeper's cardinal sins. A trilogy of error, each slightly less infuriating than the initial mistake, but with none involved covering themselves in glory.
It was inauspicious, to say the least, and rendered Liverpool's deep, patient tactics rather moot. Tactics which were flawed in the first place with Bellamy and Downing as orthodox wingers but refusing to stretch the full-backs wide, leaving Suarez supremely isolated as Gerrard also played deeper and deeper in an effort to have the ball more often. Liverpool's lone first-half chance to equalize came three minutes after Chelsea's opener, when Bellamy's shot was blocked after Johnson's clever turn and cross fell to his feet. At the other end, Reina nearly fumbled Ramires' cross-turned-shot, Kalou's run through Liverpool's defense required a last-ditch tackle from Agger, and Drogba and Lampard tested their luck, albeit poorly, from distance.
However, after a switch to a 4-4-2ish formation around the half-hour – with Henderson on the right, Downing on the left, and Bellamy and Suarez interchangeably playing as a support striker – Liverpool began to settle into ineffective possession, usually on the ball but without truly threatening Chelsea, happy to settle into defensive positions, protect the lead, and look to counter-attack with Liverpool mostly harmless and increasingly desperate.
It took Chelsea scoring a second to wake Liverpool up, an awakening clearly aided by Dalglish's immediate replacement of Spearing with Carroll. But before, the ball came straight back at Liverpool after Spearing's brainless, aimless clearance, Lampard jinked around the same scapegoat as if he wasn't there and fed Drogba, perfectly placed between Skrtel and Johnson and perfectly placing his shot low into the far corner.
Today's sole consolation and rued missed opportunity came immediately after. Liverpool looked a wholly different, wholly better side with Carroll joining Suarez in attack, and the removal of poor Spearing. Giving Suarez support, now no longer running in vain after lost causes, finally unsettled Chelsea, whose defense couldn't have had an easier task until then. And ten minutes later, Liverpool pulled one back through the substitute: Downing won the ball back in the final third, his tackle timed perfectly and falling to a just-onside Carroll, who cleverly danced around Terry and blasted unstoppably over Cech. Game on.
And it remained game on, as if the pitch had completely seesawed. Liverpool had near-total possession, wave after wave of chaotic red falling at deep blue back lines. But game-changing Carroll couldn't get headers won on target, Cech saved Suarez's low shot, and Henderson blasted over from range after yet another Carroll knockdown.
Then, the heart-stopping, arguably karmic moment. Downing, Enrique, Downing, Gerrard, Suarez, Gerrard quickly shifting play from left to right, getting the Chelsea defense moving out of its comfortable positions. Gerrard's ball to the flank putting Johnson one-on-one with Cole, cutting inside, running across the top of the box before handing off to Suarez, who took one stride then fired a perfect chipped cross to an open Carroll four yards out. I don't know how Cech prevented the equalizer. Maybe his save came just over the goal-line; it was impossible to conclusively judge from the replays. But he saved it, pushing it onto the bar, and it dropped onto the goal line and out. Carroll, Suarez, and Kuyt wheeled away in celebration, but the linesman didn't give it. Even if, at best, he wasn't sure – and we weren't sure after replays – he can't give it. But it makes it that much more painful, especially given the congruence with the Garcia goal that announced Liverpool's re-arrival to the game's top echelon. It's also yet another argument for goal line technology, but that's a futile argument for another day.
That was the stomach punch. Liverpool had half chances, but had to have known they'd probably see none better. Pressure remained mounted, but was limited to corners, a free kick into the wall, and Carroll caught in two minds when released by Suarez, with the resulting shot-slash-cross blocked by Lampard. The whistle blew, Liverpool players slumped to the turf, with Chelsea keeping the ball penned in Liverpool's end.
Now, this season will be remembered for a league cup and the shittiest league campaign in ages. At least today ended with an "almost came back like the Liverpool we know in cup finals" bang rather than the threatened-for-an-hour whimper. Sadly, that's not good enough. Not good enough in a cup final, and especially not good enough given the dross that's been the majority of this season's campaign. The dominant memory will still be the loss, not the almost-comeback, and it'll be a distant third memory behind the league and league cup, in that order.
Winning today certainly wouldn't have cured Liverpool's multiple problems or dimmed the multiple, rightful complaints over what came before. But it's hard to argue with a domestic cup double, something that's only been done by three sides since the League Cup's creation in 1960. Eighth place, probably at best, and a Carling Cup win is a mid-table side's campaign. No one remembers the losers. And we're all frightened of a mid-table future.
I'll still argue that Liverpool's better than they appear on first glance; there has been bad, a lot of bad, but the bad's obscured the few rays of optimism. Nonetheless, even in the most forgiving appraisals, Liverpool have a long, difficult road ahead, one without the comfort of two cups.