Liverpool have won their first trophy in six years, beating Cardiff City on penalties to hoist the Carling Cup at Wembley Stadium. It was an incredibly hard-fought win, and Cardiff were desperately unfortunate to be on the losing side having gone ahead in the first half and then battling back to draw level right at the end of extra time.
From the very beginning, it looked like Liverpool's day. Glen Johnson issued a statement of intent in the second minute, sending in a beautiful curling strike which cannoned off Tom Heaton's crossbar and then was scrambled away. It was all hands on deck for the Cardiff backline, who had to deal with the Premier League side controlling the vast majority of play. Mark Hudson and Ben Turner were magnificent in dealing with the threat* posed by Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in the box, throwing in thunderous challenges and excellent blocks all evening.
It looked for a while as though Cardiff were actually planning on defending like madmen for 120 minutes to force the shootout, but then they scored with virtually their first attack of the game. Martin Skrtel only partially cleared a Kevin McNaughton delivery, and the right back then found Kenny Miller in space just outside the Liverpool box. Miller did well in drawing out Jose Enrique, giving him the space to slip in Joe Mason for a legitimate chance to go 1-0 up.
The 20-year-old took it brilliantly, rolling a first-time shot between Pepe Reina's legs to give Cardiff the lead. They'd hold it through half time, despite a number of fantastic chances for Liverpool to go in front, although eventually the defensive effort was undone by Martin Skrtel an hour in.
Luis Suarez was still recovering from the shock of seeing his flicked header hit the post from two yards out when Skrtel controlled the rebound and slotted past a helpless Heaton. It was harsh on the Cardiff back line and goalkeeper, who'd done superbly in keeping Liverpool out to that point, but giving a team that much possession is just inviting a mistake or a stroke of bad fortune, and the Reds were well worth their goal, and deserved to be even at 1-1.
That state of affairs persisted through the full ninety minutes, although Kenny Miller wasted an absolutely glorious chance for the winner before Mark Clatteburg blew for full time (and stoppage time also featured the curious spectacle of Jamie Carragher clutching the ball like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum after conceding a free kick). Extra time it would be, although some tired Cardiff legs meant that you'd have put some decent money on Liverpool making that half hour count.
Why Dirk Kuyt wasn't starting from the beginning is a question you'll have to ask Kenny Dalglish, but the Dutch forward made a real impact as a substitute, collecting a rebound and blasting past Heaton in the 108th minute. It looked like a hammer blow for Cardiff, who had several players walking wounder by this point and no substitutes left - Aron Gunnarsson could do little more than hobble to the touchlines and take throw ins - but the Championship team wasn't done yet, and Liverpool invited disaster by opting to sit on their lead rather than add the killer third.
Cardiff pressure around the penalty box slowly built up for the remainder of extra time, and it finally told just two minutes from time. There had been plenty of warning when Kuyt, who was putting in a great shift, managed to clear the ball off the line, but Liverpool failed to take heed and were stunned when Ben Turner managed to scramble home from close range to make it 2-2. The match would go to penalties.
Heaton has a reputation as something of a penalty kick wizard, and it looked like Cardiff were in the driver's seat when he pulled off an absolutely spectacular save against Steven Gerard, clawing the Liverpool captain's effort out from under the top corner. He then saw Charlie Adam blast well over the bar - Liverpool's first two spot kicks had resulted in zero goals.
Unfortunately for the Bluebirds, Kenny Miller's effect had also missed, rattling Reina's post, and they were relieved when Don Cowrie's penalty finally found the back of the net. From then on, however, Liverpool would not miss, with Dirk Kuyt, Steward Downing and finally Glen Johnson scoring, while an exhausted Rudy Gestede could only hit the post with Cardiff's third. Peter Whittingham managed to score to keep things close, but at 3-2, everything rested on Anthony Gerrard, cousin of Steven.
He missed wide, and Liverpool are your 2012 Carling Cup champions.