Liverpool FC's second period under Kenny Dalglish has thus far mimicked the relationship between a petrol-head and his first car; it's stopped and started, sometimes cruising and looking like reaching top speed, only to stutter to a stop with tedious inevitability, but in spite of this, he still loves the old girl. How couldn't he? It may not be as fast as it once was, but it's still a classic, and with a few tweaks could reach its old glories. Sunday's Carling Cup final against Cardiff City at Wembley gives Liverpool the chance to attach a great big turbo-charger to the back of the Dalglishmobile and send it zooming, Delorean-style, back to past glories (how's THAT for a convoluted metaphor!).
To be clear, this is a match that Liverpool have to win. Put all of the clichés about
"how anything can happen in cup football" and "Cardiff's big day" aside; this is a Premiership team, supposedly looking to return to Champions' League football next season, and assembled for a cost topping £100million, facing a team a division below them whose most expensive player ever costs less than 10% of the fee Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll (although this probably reflects worse on Liverpool than it does on Cardiff). Nonetheless, for Liverpool to triumph over Cardiff on most occasions would be nothing special.
But this isn't just any occasion; it's a cup final. Admittedly it's the Carling Cup final; a competition which formed one third of Liverpool's 'Mickey Mouse' Treble in 2001, which Arsene Wegner described as not constituting an end to a trophy drought, and which this season Neil Warnock (whilst still QPR manager) expressed great enjoyment to have been eliminated from.
Part of this reputation is partly down to cash; the winner receives just £100,000 in prize money compared to £2million for the FA Cup. Part of this is down to the distracting nature of progress in the cup, adding additional games in the already congested winter period. And part of this is simply self fulfilling; when everyone says the competition's rubbish, everyone think's it's rubbish, and it thus becomes rubbish. However, as a Liverpool fan, I'm demanding victory on Sunday. For Liverpool, this season, to (shudder) quote Alex Ferguson, "it's a pot worth winning."
Liverpool have gone six years without winning a trophy, since Steven Gerrard's swashbuckling performance and 35-yard jackhammer equaliser in the 90th minute took the club to FA Cup victory over West Ham. Since then, the side seemed to get better and better, with the arrival of Fernando Torres, the blossoming of Xabi Alonso and the Gerrard's assumption of the mantle of the world's best midfielder taking Liverpool to a point where they looked able to challenge for titles, both at home and abroad; reaching the Champions League final in 2007 and finishing second in the league in 2009. But as Rafael Benitez's reign wound down, 'nearly' seemed to be the key descriptor for Liverpool's fortunes, until they got so used to being 'nearly' that they slipped further and further away, ultimately finishing 7th in the 2009-10 season. Things got even worse under Roy 'Woy' Hodgson. So bad that I won't speak of them again (Northampton Town still makes me weep). And then, Gandalf-style, Liverpool's greatest hero Kenny Dalglish returned. The feel-good factor that has since surrounded the club has masked the fact that the team's fortunes have remained largely stagnant since then; big-money buys Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing have underperformed, Luis Suarez plunged the club into a PR nightmare, Anfield has witnessed far too many draws against sub-par sides, and the club remain locked outside of the top four.
A win on Sunday could change all of that. It will get Liverpool back into Europe, through automatic qualification through the Europa League. It will, after six years, put silverware in the Liverpool trophy cabinet. And, most importantly, it will convince the players, manager and fans that this is a side who deserve to win things. For the top sides, Carling Cups beget FA Cups and FA Cups beget even greater things. Talk of a 'winning mentality' is often hackneyed, but Manchester City's 2011 FA Cup triumph over Stoke gave players that taste of glory after so long, and propelled them to their Premier League domination this season. As a Liverpool fan, I truly believe that a cup win, even the Carling Cup, even over Cardiff, is what this side needs.
This is not to underestimate Cardiff; they are a strong, tightly knit team, who've progressed fantastically well through the competition. But defeat is simply not an option. Lose, and Liverpool shall sink deeper into a swamp of mediocrity. Win, and the sky's the limit.