It's Carling Cup final time again. While it's not a competition that means a whole lot to the Premier League elite, to the rest of the English football pyramid it's a rather big deal. Two teams that would really like to win the whole thing in Cardiff City and Liverpool square off at Wembley on Sunday, and while it might look as though Cardiff are completely overmatched here, we don't need to go very far back to find an unfancied team upsetting one of the old top four.
Cardiff have had a fairly easy ride to Wembley, facing just one Premier League team in Blackburn, and while their focus is rightly on winning promotion to the top flight this season, they'd be delighted to add a major trophy to their 1927 FA Cup triumph.
Liverpool, on the other hand, will be looking to show their progress under Kenny Dalglish as well as to make up for their 2005 Carling Cup appearance, where an own goal in extra time from captain Steven Gerrard handed Chelsea a 3-2 win and Jose Mourinho his first English trophy. The Reds haven't won anything since the FA Cup in 2006 (although that 2005 Champions League win is still looking rather shiny), and will be expecting to end their mini-drought on Sunday.
Cardiff have some significant injury concerns. While nobody's been ruled out as of yet, centre back and captain Mark Hudson has an ankle injury and might not make it out onto the pitch. Goalkeeper Tom Heaton has similar concerns. Stephen McPhail, suffering from Sjogren's Syndrome, an autoimmune disorder, is also a doubt.
Liverpool don't have many injury worries save the hammer blow they suffered when Lucas Leiva ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in November. The Brazilian midfielder is, of course, out for the remainder of the season and will play no part here. Daniel Agger's a minor concern, although the centre back is expected to recover from a minor back problem in time to face the Bluebirds.
How They Got Here
Cardiff backed into the final after struggling to get past Crystal Palace in the semifinals. Despite being comfortably the better team, the Bluebirds lost the first leg 1-0 and only scored one goal against their ten-man opponents in the reverse fixture, eventually winning a penalty shootout thanks to two excellent saves by Tom Heaton. That wasn't the only shootout Cardiff have had to navigate in the tournament to date, however — they beat Leicester City 2-2 (7-6) in the third round.
Thanks to a very favourable draw, Cardiff have only faced one Premier League team, and that was Blackburn Rovers at their very worst (whom they dispatched pretty easily). They've yet to face anything even close to the challenge that Liverpool will present.
Nobody expected this to be Liverpool's tournament. Two months ago, when Dalglish's side were drawn against Manchester City in the semifinals, you'd have been hard pressed to find anyone confident that Liverpool would make it to Wembley on Saturday. But they did, thanks to a phenomenal performance at Etihad Stadium and then a hard-fought draw at Anfield, and now they'll be looking forward to a match where they look like odds-on favorites to lift the Carling Cup.
City aren't the only tough opponents Liverpool have successfully navigated past this season. A quarterfinal win against a young Chelsea side at Stamford Bridge as well as victory against Stoke City at the Britannia shows that the Reds' place in the final is no fluke — they've truly earned their place.
Cardiff City are expected to line up in a fairly defensive 4-5-1 designed to be difficult to break down and to maximize what possessions they do have. Liverpool, meanwhile, will look to a resurgent(ish) Andy Carroll to lead the line with Luis Suarez playing right behind him. Cardiff old boy Craig Bellamy is expected to start over Stewart Downing on the left, with workhorse Dirk Kuyt on the opposite flank. Dalglish will be looking to kill the match off as quickly as possible to ensure that we don't get a repeat of Birmingham's upset against Arsenal last year.
Cardiff City (4-5-1): Tom Heaton; Andrew Taylor, Anthony Gerrard, Ben Turner, Kevin McNaughton; Craig Conway, Stephen McPhail, Peter Whittingham, Aron Gunnarsson, Don Cowie; Kenny Miller.
Game Date/Time: Sunday, February 26th, 4:00 PM GMT (11:00 AM EST).
Venue: Wembley Stadium, London, England.
TV: BBC One (UK), FOX Soccer Channel (USA), Sportsnet World (Canada)