Heading into this weekend's fixtures, Arsene Wenger was doing what all managers are required to do -- the painful process of addressing the press. In Wenger's case, he was holding court about how the Gunners would rebound next season without diverging from their financially prudent transfer policy. When asked if he was resigned to the fact that at least two clubs (City and United) would outspend him, he said "of course," and then reminded his audience that there are only two trophies -- "real trophies that are a sign of the quality of the team," in his words -- worth winning, the Premier League and the Champions League.
FA Cup? Not on the list for Wenger, not worth caring about, not a "real" trophy. But tell that to Liverpool and Everton as they clashed in the cup semifinals at Wembley, where plenty of emotion was on display: Everton manager David Moyes pumping his fists with vigor after the Toffees went ahead; Reds gaffer Kenny Dalglish jumping in the air after his side replied with two second-half goals; Andy Carroll going from agony, head buried in embarrassment in his shirt, to rapture after scoring the winning goal; and 87,231 fans who experienced each and every one of the fervent highs and lows of being a football fan.
In this, a Merseyside derby in London, Liverpool edged its archrival Everton 2-1 to reach the final, where it has a chance to pull off a cup double, having won the league cup in February. It's been a bizarre season for the Reds -- they could potentially win two cups and yet finish in the bottom half of the Prem for the first time since the 1950s -- and while this victory was hardly a masterpiece, it'll gloss over those shortcomings (at least for a time) for Dalglish & Co.
The first two goals of the game could have been written into the script for the new "Three Stooges" movie. In the 25th minute, Everton keeper Tim Howard hoofed a long ball that bounced off Tim Cahill's back, falling between Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger. At that point, the two defenders both balked at clearing the danger -- it's yours! No, you take it! No, you take it! -- before Carragher finally kicked the ball right at Cahill. The ball broke for Nikica Jelavic, who slotted it past Liverpool third-string keeper Brad Jones.
Why Carragher was in the side is the first question. With Jose Enrique available on the bench, Dalglish could have played his stronger center back pairing of Agger and Martin Skrtel with Enrique out left. Instead, you sense that the manager was giving Carragher one of those for-old-time's-sake run-outs. Nice gesture, but it cost Liverpool.
Press Association/AP ImagesLuis Suarez, along with Carroll, helped lead Liverpool to victory.
You also wondered if it was going to be one of those days for Dalglish's team when at the start of the game Steven Gerrard tried to play Luis Suarez into the box, only to smash referee Howard Webb in the head with the ball. Another comedic moment came when Stewart Downing literally outran a ball that he should have crossed.
To be fair, Everton came out the better side in the first half, looking brighter in attack and more organized in defense. And you can only presume Dalglish lit a fire under his players during the halftime (let's call it) talk, because they came out much stronger. Yet, it was another gaffe of epic proportions that allowed the Reds back into the match in the 62nd minute. Carroll won a header, pushing the ball out wide. Sylvain Distin raced in front of Suarez and could have kicked the ball up field, out of play or back to his keeper. The defender chose the last option, but his back pass had all the pace of a turtle, and Suarez was able to run onto the ball and toward goal. John Heitinga hurried across to try to stop him, but Suarez, using the outside of his right foot, cooly slotted the ball home.
While Distin should hang his head in shame (after the match, the crestfallen center back walked over to Everton supporters to apologize), Suarez deserves credit -- it was not an easy finish, he only made it look so. What's more, he has now scored in all three of his appearances in the FA Cup for Liverpool, unlike the profligacy in front of goal we've seen from him at other times.
Moyes tried to make adjustments, moving Cahill into the middle of the field and Marouane Fellaini forward to help out Jelavic, who seemed to lose steam and also lacked much endeavor to run onto long balls. Leighton Baines wasn't his usual dangerous self going forward, either. Overall, Everton lost their way for much of the second half and didn't have an answer as Liverpool continued to pressure.
And what of Liverpool's Carroll? The man in the ponytail has been pilloried for months for not living up to his 35 million pound price tag, which has hung around his neck like an albatross. And the striker missed some gilt-edge chances in this match, too. In the 47th minute, Downing -- who after his switch to the left side of midfield actually hit two, count 'em, two, decent crosses -- flung the ball into the box. At the far post, Carroll jumped up on a free header four yards from goal yet somehow contrived to miss wide. The camera panned to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush, as if to say, He wouldn't have missed that.
Two other attempts in the second half -- shots at Carroll's feet -- also missed the target.
At the same time, Carroll was Liverpool's most threatening player in the first half and continued to play well in the second. His work rate was excellent, he tracked back, won balls both on the ground and in the air. Of course, strikers aren't remembered (or necessarily paid) for these sorts of things. It's those nanoseconds in front of goal -- success or failure -- that are indelibly burned into the harddrive of our minds. And after winning the game against Blackburn in stoppage time with a header mid-week, Carroll again came through. On a free kick outside the box, the always chirpy Craig Bellamy (on for Downing, who put in a reasonable shift) put up a sublime curving ball from the left into the box, where Carroll outjumped Jelavic to head home. Fellaini, who had been marking Carroll for most of the match, was on the wrong side of the ball and didn't even bother to jump and challenge.
"It's a great feeling," Carroll told reporters. "I've had some criticism but I've just kept on going. I get the winner here and it's a great feeling. I believe in myself every day."
Added Jones about his teammate: "The media knock him but he works hard, does extra training and deserved this goal at Wembley."
That's two matches now where Carroll has come up big. I'm reminded of the night of Dec. 30, when Liverpool took on Newcastle. It was supposed to be a big match for Carroll against his former club, as he was starting up top for the suspended Suarez. On a free kick in the 67th minute, Bellamy shot from about 25 yards from goal, and Carroll ran toward the near post. In a flash, the ball had gone into the back of the net and for a split second it appeared that Carroll had helped it along. He ran toward his teammates with a sheepish, almost apologetic smile. Was he taking credit? He knew, of course, that he had ultimately had nothing to do with the shot -- it was all Bellamy, and a rather strange and awkward moment for Carroll. In the end, the press predictably pounced on him for another failed outing.
The same could have been said of him at Wembley, the pitch half bathed in sun and half in shadow. For all his effort, if not for his goal, Carroll would have been cast in the dark half, with the focus being on his missed chances. And, indeed, the striker still has a long, long way to go before he's living up to his multimillion pound billing. But for now, with Liverpool in the FA Cup final, Carroll can smile -- and this time mean it.