So the best Welsh performance of a great sporting weekend went unrewarded then. Okay, I know that a total of thirty nine goal attempts (a huge number even in a game extended by extra time) to eleven in Liverpool’s favour suggests the sort of dominance being reported in some sections of a, predictably, one eyed national print media, but I would argue that the possession figures over the one hundred and twenty minutes (53% Liverpool to 47% Cardiff) is a more accurate reflection of how what must have been a very enjoyable League Cup Final for the neutrals, panned out.
If a team deserved to win it over the ninety or one hundred and twenty minutes, then I think even the most committed City fan would have to admit that it was Liverpool, but they were denied this by a Cardiff performance that was a credit to the Football league. As to what made it a special City performance, well, obviously, the spirit, grit, determination, character (call it what you like) that the side showed, and have received so much praise for, was a huge contributory factor, but I would add defensive organisation, a genuine deal ball threat and a shrewd selection by Malky Mackay to that as well. Finally, and most pleasingly in many ways for me, there was a cleverness and brightness shown (particularly by Don Cowie) in our attacking play that always had the Liverpool defence worried – even when we were under the severest pressure, there was always the knowledge that we were able to carve out decent goalscoring chances for ourselves when we had the chance to attack in open play.
Here, I’m talking in particular about three decent to very good opportunities that fell Kenny Miller’s way during “normal” time (for all of their “domination”, did Liverpool create many chances as clear cut as they were?) . Now, you’ll not find me being critical of any player in blue yesterday in this piece, but Miller has been going through a poor time in front of goal in the past month or so and, incredible as it would have seemed at the start of the season, I found myself wishing that those three chances had not fallen to the our big name striker, who still made a big contribution in other respects, but to the kid who cost us just £150,000 from Plymouth Argyle back in July. Miller demonstrated his talent for finding space in the penalty area with those three chances that came his way, but so did Joe Mason for the goal he scored in such composed fashion – there were other times when the youngster lost his marker (he really did cause the highly regarded Jose Enrique problems in the first half in particular) and was in plenty of space in the penalty area if only he had been found.
An Argyle fan who I have exchanged e-mails with on a fairly regular basis since Mason’s transfer informs me that he has managed to get a very impressive 80.95% of his efforts at goal on target so far in league matches and I can’t help thinking that Reina would have at least been forced into making saves if those chances had fallen to the 20 year old who, again, showed that we got an absolute bargain when we paid that small sum for him seven months ago.
Mason’s inclusion was part of a selection and tactical approach from Malky Mackay which, I believe, may have caught Liverpool on the hop. I’m sure that, like everyone else, they would have expected Miller to play in his familiar lone striking role, but by withdrawing him slightly and leaving Rudy Gestede as the one out and out striker we had, we played a system that included three genuine forward thinking players (something we don’t tend to do when we play a more conventional 4-5-1) with the result that we created more promising attacking positions than I for one, had expected beforehand.
There is nearly always a downside to whatever system you play though and this time it was that, by going for a more attacking approach, we often left ourselves without the insurance of that holding player in front of the back four – never more so than when Liverpool poured forward on the counter attack and hit our crossbar in the second minute. This was almost certainly a factor in Liverpool having so many goal attempts, but I still think it was the right approach because I believe we would have been asking for trouble if we would have just left one isolated striker up front and invited the opposition on to us.
With Liverpool also foregoing the Lucas/Spearing type holding midfield player, this made for a fine, open spectacle and, although I’m biased, I think the game has to rate as one of the better League Cup Finals. Such days are made for heroes and there were a few on the Liverpool side – I’m not sure about the much criticised Stewart Downing being the best player on the pitch, but he gave Kevin McNaughton more problems than he is used to getting week in, week out, Martin Skrtel deserved his goal and I thought the way the game went helped show Glen Johnson in his best light. On the City side, I think they were all heroes, from Tom Heaton’s calm authority and superb save from Gerrard, to Whittingham’s often understated influence in midfield, to Gunnarsson’s bravery in playing a significant part in our equaliser after being in agony with cramp seconds earlier and to Gestede’s unselfish, and often unrewarded, hustling of the Liverpool centrebacks.
However, if I had to single two City players out for special attention it would be our centrebacks. My piece following the Ipswich defeat nine days ago (see below) in which I asked what had gone wrong since beating Palace in the Semi Finals prompted a few responses on the messageboard I posted it on and there were those who argued that our poor form was down to Mark Hudson not being in the team. I disagreed with this because I didn’t think you could put our bad month down to the absence of just one player, but, after watching our captain in the first half especially, then maybe those people had a point! Hudson got so many important blocks and tackles in and, in doing so, showed the sort of leadership qualities which, perhaps, we have missed over the past month more than I thought we had.
Alongside Hudson, Ben Turner was tremendous. Before the game, I saw bits of the Arsenal v Spurs match and heard Gary Neville talking about how the sort of defending seen there helped to explain why the Premiership is regarded as such an exciting league, but also showed why it looks very like there is not going to be an English team in the last eight of this year’s Champions League. Well what you got from Turner yesterday was good, old fashioned, no nonsense defending as well as what could have been a fairy tale late goal from him which, with another outcome, would have seen him getting drinks bought for him in parts of South Wales for the rest of his life! This leads me on to our defender’s Welsh connection and with Chris Coleman selecting him as one of the two best players on the pitch, I just hope our new manager is doing all he can to persuade Turner to throw in his lot with Wales.
I could go on for ages about yesterday’s match, but just a couple of things to finish. Firstly, I’ve never had too much of a problem with those in this area who support one of the Premiership’s big guns (to be honest, I cannot say for certain that I would not have become a “plastic” myself if I had been born twenty years later), but, what has always annoyed me is the lack of respect shown by some for anyone who chose to follow what is, after all, their local team. Well, after yesterday, I take it that this will no longer apply to the thousands of Liverpool plastics residing in South Wales – on the off chance that some of them are reading this, congratulations on ending your long run without winning a trophy, but the small time outfit that some of you love to rubbish, gave you the fright of your lives.
Secondly, it seems completely appropriate that I happened to set my DVD recorder to stop precisely as Mark Clattenburg (I’ll never forget that Leeds match, but I thought he had a good game yesterday) blew for time because, in a strange way, the penalty shoot out almost didn’t count for me – not sure I would have been saying that if the outcome had been different mind! What had gone on in the previous two hours was what really counted yesterday and I’m certainly not in the game of looking for culprits and scapegoats amongst the three players who failed to score in the shoot out. Just because Liverpool managed to score with one more shot from twelve yards in a manufactured ending to a game between two sides who could not be separated playing proper football will never take away the sense of pride I’ve been feeling since around a quarter to seven yesterday – I feel far less upset than I did after the Stoke Play Off defeat and other more recent big game losses.
One thing any City fan who has been supporting the club a decent amount of time soon realises is that you have to accept setbacks like yesterday’s philosophically in the hope that our time is coming soon. That’s so much easier to do after a performance like yesterday’s which has only increased my confidence that our time is, indeed, coming soon. If we can keep this manager and the team ethic he has helped to create, while adding a little bit more quality and squad depth (not the easiest thing to do, because the tendency seems to be, the better the player, the bigger the ego) then we’ll be winning something, or earning that promotion to the Premiership, soon. Having seen how tired some of our players were towards the end of the match, I’m not sure that “our time” is going to be the end of this season though unless the club’s recruitment division are more successful in the coming days (I’d love to see two new players in for Sunday’s match) than they have been so far this year. However, even if this season brings no tangible rewards, I’d still like to thank Malky Mackay and everyone else at Cardiff City for providing some of my best ever memories (and I’m not just talking about yesterday’s Final there) in nearly half a century of supporting the club.