Liverpool hopes Carling Cup triumph is springboard for success
Liverpool ended a six-year trophy drought by winning the Carling Cup with
Liverpool showed its intent early in the competition by fielding full strength lineups
Liverpool showed a mental toughness and ability to overcome adversity
As Cup final victories go, Liverpool's Carling Cup final success (3-2 in a penalty shootout) over Cardiff City on Sunday was particularly unconvincing. When a Premier League team plays a side from a lower division, even if it plays a team from lower down the same division, anticlimax is probably the best it can hope for; to win by a comfortable two- or three-goal margin.
When Nottingham Forest retained the trophy by beating the second-flight side in Oldham in 1990, the midfielder Steve Hodge recalls there being only exhaustion afterward, whereas the previous season, when Forest had come from behind to beat the top-flight team Luton Town, there had been raucous celebration. Liverpool would probably have welcomed such tiredness; as it was, it was forced to go through the agony of falling behind, conceding a last-minute equalizer and twice losing the initiative in the penalty competition before eventually winning through. The great performances came in the earlier rounds, against Chelsea and Manchester City.
This couldn't have been further from the image the club was presumably hoping for of a giant reasserting itself, proving that the bad times are over with a display of resonant superiority. But the thing is that it doesn't matter. That Cardiff was plucky and Liverpool blundering (although, it should be said, Liverpool still had more than enough chances to have won the game with ease) will soon be forgotten. Far more important is that Liverpool has won something for the first time in six years. That particular clock has stopped, as Arsenal must wish its counter of ignominy could have been reset with a victory over Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final last season.
Perhaps the most significant element of Liverpool's success happened in Exeter in August. Against a League One side, Dalglish might have been expected to field a weakened side, to ease players in to the season, but his starting 11 included Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel, Maxi Rodriguez, Raul Meireles, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson and Luis Suarez -- seven players who would be considered regular first-teamers, plus Andy Carroll who came off the bench after 20 minutes. Compare that to the previous season, when Roy Hodgson's side to face Northampton Town, from League Two, in Liverpool's first appearance in the competition (having qualified for Europe, it entered at a later stage) included just Daniel Agger and Lucas Leiva -- and perhaps, if you're being generous, Sotiros Kyrgiakos and Ryan Babel -- among regular first-teamers. Hodgson's team drew 2-2 and went out on penalties.
Hodgson is far from the only manager to have rested players for the early rounds of the Carling Cup and there is a certain logic for doing so. But for Dalglish to field such a strong side sent at least one and perhaps two clear messages. Most obviously, it said the Carling Cup was a tournament worth taking seriously, generating a mood that sustained Liverpool throughout. And perhaps it also suggested to players that there is no pampered elite at Anfield, that everybody has to muck in when asked.
The neglect of the Cup competitions by so many clubs remains baffling. To an extent it's an indictment of modern soccer: remaining in the Premier League (or, at a higher level, qualification for the Champions League) offers a regular revenue stream, the logic runs, and so must be prioritized -- as it is in the bonus structures at most clubs for both players and managers. But Cup finals are special days, occasions that offer the chance of glory and memories that endure for both players and fans. I'm a Sunderland fan and I recall the 2-1 FA Cup quarterfinal replay victory over Chelsea in 1992 much more fondly than the 4-1 demolition of the same opposition in 1999-2000, the year Sunderland achieved its best finish in half a century and came seventh. Surely most people in soccer below the boardroom operate with similar priorities?
But there is an argument that goes beyond romance. Dalglish has won something. He has added something to the trophy cabinet. With Liverpool facing Stoke City in the quarterfinal of the FA Cup, he might yet add another this season and so repeat the double Gerard Houllier achieved in 2000-01 (although Houllier's side also lifted the UEFA Cup that season). But even if the FA Cup eludes Liverpool, Dalglish has done something indelible. The second-place finish Liverpool achieved in the Premier League in the 2008-09 season under Rafa Benitez was quickly forgotten amid poor results the following season, but silverware is silverware. In a sense the pressure is off: Dalglish has achieved something and Liverpool is guaranteed Europa League play next season wherever it finishes in the league.
"We deserved our first trophy in six years but we need to continue to work hard and see where it takes us," Dalglish said to reporters. "We didn't think six years ago that it would take this long to win our next trophy. We have won it, we will really enjoy it and it will give us a flavor to come back and do it again. Every member of the squad has contributed to this and worked really hard to get here. Now we need to see if we can kick on from here. I think this will inspire the players."
Liverpool only has to think back to its last appearance in a League Cup final to see how that can work. In 2005, it lost 3-2 to Chelsea to give Jose Mourinho his first trophy in English soccer. He went on to win two Premier League titles, an FA Cup and another Carling Cup over the two-and-a-half seasons that followed.
And that perhaps is where Liverpool can draw most encouragement. Winning is often described as a habit, but it is perhaps rather an attribute in itself. However gifted a side it must also have a toughness, an ability to drag itself over the line. Dalglish has always had that, both as a player and as a manager, and the way Liverpool kept going despite the missed chances, kept going despite conceding a late equalizer, didn't capitulate after missing its first two penalties is perhaps a reflection of that. And perhaps the first part of instilling that determination came in August when, by picking a strong side, he showed the competition mattered.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.