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Last four head-to-head:
2-1 Liverpool (h; Carling Cup) 10.31.07
0-4 Cardiff (h) 12.19.59
2-3 Cardiff (a) 08.22.59
0-3 Cardiff (a) 02.14.59
Liverpool: 2-2 City (h); 1-0 City (a); 2-1 Chelsea (a); 2-1 Stoke (a); 2-1 Brighton (a); 3-1 Exeter (a)
Cardiff: 1-0 Palace aet [3-1 pens] (h); 0-1 Palace (a); 2-0 Blackburn (h); 1-0 Burnley (a); 2-2 Leicester aet [7-6 pens] (h); 5-3 Huddersfield aet (h); 3-1 Oxford aet (a)
Last three matches:
Liverpool: 6-1 Brighton (h); 1-2 United (a); 0-0 Spurs (h)
Cardiff: 0-3 Ipswich (a); 3-1 Peterborough (h); 1-2 Leicester (a)
Goalscorers (Carling Cup):
Liverpool: Suarez 3; Bellamy, Gerrard, Maxi 2; Carroll, Kelly, Kuyt 1
Cardiff: Cowie 3; Conway 2, Gerrard, Gestede, Gyepes, Jarvis, Mason, Miller, Parkin, Whittingham 1
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Guess at a line-up:
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Suarez Carroll Bellamy
Liverpool are in the League Cup Final. It's been six years since the club won a trophy, and they're heavily-favored against Championship opposition. I'll tell you how it plays out. Liverpool score early, are unable to get the crucial second, concede a rash injury time penalty equalizer, nearly concede a second penalty in extra time, and finally win after a shootout, thanks to the goalkeeper stopping two spot-kicks.
How do I know this? It already happened. That was the 2001 League Cup final against Birmingham. For those who enjoy symmetry, that final was played in Cardiff. Jamie Carragher, of all players, scored the winning spot kick; unsurprisingly, he and Gerrard are the only two left from that squad. Liverpool later went on to lift the FA and UEFA Cups for an unlikely treble.
There's also the 2005/06 FA Cup final, that most-recent Liverpool trophy, where the club were heavily favored to beat newly-promoted West Ham but had to stage a remarkable Gerrard-led comeback to make it to the penalty lottery. And I doubt I need to remind of last season's Carling Cup final, where everyone assumed Arsenal would break their trophy drought with a romp (including Arsenal), only to see Birmingham snatch an unbelievable winner at the death thanks to an all-time comedic clusterfuck.
Cup finals rarely play out the expected scripts. Thankfully, it's safe to assume Dalglish is well-aware of their foibles, as are Gerrard, Carra, and other senior players. I highly doubt the manager will let complacency seep in. This trophy hasn't been won just by reaching Wembley for the first time since blah blah blah. At the same time, keeping players relaxed with be just as important; every single man in red knows that Liverpool haven't won a trophy since blah blah blah, while Cardiff have next to no pressure or expectations.
Sticking with the 4-2-1-3 formation we saw against Brighton, where Liverpool's attack looked ever so potent, seems the likely plan. At most, Agger should replace Carragher, while Bellamy will probably come in for Downing; both players should be fit after missing last Sunday's match with unspecified knocks.
If Liverpool stick with the 4-2-1-3, Spearing for Henderson seems the only possible change in midfield. However, the base of Gerrard-Adam defended adequately against Brighton, Spearing usually plays deeper than Gerrard or Adam (making the formation more a 4-1-2-3/4-1-4-1, which could leave Liverpool exposed to Cardiff's multiple midfield runners), and Gerrard's rarely played as an out-and-out attacking midfielder under Dalglish.
The one argument against starting Bellamy in place of Downing is that having Suarez, Carroll, and Bellamy all on the pitch leaves little room for dynamic changes if, Fowler forbid, things aren't going to plan. God loves a trier, but Kuyt and Downing aren't impact subs. No matter the opposition, the front three combined promisingly a week ago. But Bellamy's been one of Liverpool's most-consistent scorers and scoring against another former club, this his hometown team, seems almost written in the stars.
Cardiff currently sit fifth in the Championship, smack in the middle of the playoff chase and just seven points from first. But since beating Palace on penalties a month ago, Cardiff have won just once: 3-1 over 18th-placed Peterborough on Valentine's Day, losing three and drawing one in the others.
Cardiff usually play a 4-1-4-1 or 4-4-2 formation; this is an outstanding preview from Cardiff's point of view. Midfielder Peter Whittingham, with nine goals and 11 assists, is on the three-man shortlist for Championship player of the season. Kenny Miller, joint top-scorer with Whittingham, is a wily Scot, while Cowie and Conway are dangerous from the flanks. Miller, Cowie, and Conway, along with midfield axis Aron Gunnarson and defenders Taylor and Turner, all joined Cardiff last summer. And, as you're probably aware, Steven Gerrard's cousin Anthony could start in central defense.
The Bluebirds beat just one Premiership opponent on their path to the final, a 2-0 home win over Blackburn in the quarterfinals. Four of their six cup matches required extra time, two – including the semi-final – went to penalties. Cardiff know what it's like to win a cagey, close cup match, will be able to play without pressure as the underdogs, and will be diligent, prepared, and difficult to break down. And, like we've said all season, Liverpool will have to capitalize, something they've not done nearly enough. In this case, there's a very tangible reward just over the horizon.