Commentary

League cup can be catalyst for Liverpool

Updated: February 24, 2012, 3:23 PM ET
By Andi Thomas | Special to ESPN.com

Kenny DalglishAndrew Powell/Getty ImagesKenny Dalglish watches his team prepare for Sunday's league final against Cardiff City, a match that could help the Reds atone for an inconsistent season.

For clubs with aspirations to compete at the upper end of the Premier League, the league cup has, in recent years, been a curious mix of opportunity and distraction. General convention dictates that they pick teams heavy on youth, a policy that arguably reached its apogee when an Arsenal side with an average outfield age of 20 demolished Liverpool 6-3 in 2007. (Though even then Julio Baptista, a not-particularly coltish 25 at the time, scored four of the Gunners' goals.) While ostensibly a chance to give youth its head, the none-too-subtle implication is that the league cup revolves around learning rather than winning; the big boys are busy with the big business elsewhere.

In some ways the league cup has always been a little lacking in identity. Conceived in the 1960s after the advent of widespread floodlighting made a midweek evening tournament both viable and desirable, it was only after the introduction of an automatic European spot for the winners that all 92 clubs began to compete. Since then, a rotating cast of sponsors -- currently Carling, though previous incarnations have included the Rumbelows Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup and, most endearingly, the Milk Cup -- and big-team ambiguity have contrived to muddy things somewhat. It will never be able to reach back into and resonate with football's (pre-)history the way the FA Cup can. And nowadays it will never compete with the league in any big club's list of priorities, a fact that is only exacerbated by the increasing disdain with which the these same clubs treat the Europa League. Never was a carrot so disdained.

Until the semifinals, of course, when everything changes. For a start, it's at this stage that big clubs start to run into one another, and night games between the Premier League's weightier ones are still rare enough to feel a bit special. More importantly, the possibility of an actual big silver cup swims, temptingly, into focus, and a scheduling nuisance makes a butterfly-like transformation into an opportunity to get your hands on something tangible. If there's one thing self-regarding aristocrats love, it's storied silver. Even Arsene Wenger -- who once dismissed the league cup as a "non-trophy" -- appears to have come around to the competition, an epiphany that only added to the black hilarity of last season's Laurent and Wojciech Show.

For Liverpool, therefore, this weekend offers a chance to make an immediate return on what Fenway Sports Group executives are doubtless calling "The Project." It is faintly remarkable that since the new Wembley opened for business in March 2007, 60 clubs have played in the shadow of the arch, but not a one has been Liverpool; this is a club whose fans used to refer to the old Twin Towers as "Anfield South." Kenny Dalglish will also be looking to right a personal wrong: As a player, he won four in a row from 1980-81 to 1983-84, but he has never lifted the cup as manager.

[+] EnlargeCraig Bellamy
Andrew Powell/Getty ImagesIn an interesting side story, Welshman Craig Bellamy -- who grew up in Cardiff supporting Liverpool -- could face his home team for the first time.

Dalglish's side has been effective if not always ebullient in both cups this season, which has been some compensation for league performances that have either been stable or stagnant depending on how generous you're feeling. Liverpool -- for all that last season was an exercise in self-harm followed by self-reclamation -- is only four points better off this term, having spent (as you may have heard) a fair amount of cash. Its inconsistency is neatly illustrated by the league cup semifinals: a smash-and-grab away win and an entertaining home draw against the best team in the country, Manchester City, between which Liverpool suffered in the league with an ambitionless, goalless draw with Stoke and a desperate surrender at Bolton.

However, Liverpool comes into the final high off the back of a 6-1 home win in the Other Cup, and while it wasn't exactly a proper thrashing -- more an exercise in trying to keep a straight face while Brighton & Hove Albion riotously thrashed themselves -- beyond the farce and the three own goals were glimpses of menace from Luis Suarez, something that looked like improvement from Andy Carroll and even at one point a smile from Stewart Downing.

An entertaining subplot for the Carling Cup final comes via the fit-again Craig Bellamy, who grew up in Cardiff supporting Liverpool; if he plays, he'll be facing his home team for the first time. And were Liverpool to emerge from what we might delicately call an interesting season -- insert your indelicate alternative term here -- with a trophy, the good folks of FSG would certainly feel that their investment was on track. Presumably the fans would be quite pleased, too.

One interesting and occasionally overlooked side effect of the league cup is that by virtue of its midseason position in the schedule and frequent openness of play, it offers a handy opportunity to get a new team winning. Jose Mourinho lifted the cup partway through his first year at Chelsea, and credited the experience with introducing what was then a relatively callow squad to the ways of triumph. If the cliches are true -- if winning is a habit, if success does breed success and if a bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush -- then a victory in the league cup can be seen as, and used as, a catalyst. Certainly, Dalglish views reaching the final as a sign that "there is progress being made. For the players it is an indication of how well they have done so everyone is looking forward to it."

In contrast to Liverpool, its opponent, Cardiff City, has visited the FA's monument to its own magnificence on three occasions. An FA Cup semifinal win against Barnsley was followed by defeat to 'Arry 'Edknapp's 'Ortsmouth in the 2008 final, and in 2010 it lost to Blackpool in a crazy Championship playoff final, going down 3-2 having led twice.

It's been less than two years since that loss, but Cardiff City is a very different proposition. Five of the players that started that game have gone -- including Joe Ledley, Michael Chopra and England's Jay Bothroyd -- and so, too, has the defeated manager Dave Jones, who has been replaced by former Watford boss Malky Mackay, a young, modern coach with a Revie-esque predilection for a dossier.

Mackay has been entrusted with reshaping the club -- another Project; they're everywhere these days -- and on the pitch this has meant tactically flexible, hard-pressing football. Kenny Miller provides the edge up front, but the creative heart of the team is Peter Whittingham, who quarterbacks between defense and midfield. Mackay himself has been rewarded for his progress to the final -- and the team's current fifth-place spot in the Championship -- with a new contract.

History, a notoriously inconstant muse, has encouragement for both teams. Liverpool -- already a strong favorite -- is the most successful club in the history of the competition, having lifted the trophy seven times, and the last time the sides met was in the fourth round of this competition, a 2-1 home win at Anfield.

[+] EnlargeKenny Miller
Scott Heavey/Getty ImagesKenny Miller & Co. will be underdogs against Liverpool, but remember this: Cardiff City holds the head-to-head advantage over the Reds.

Yet Cardiff City can take heart as well. It remains the only side ever to smuggle one of England's cups outside her borders, when Welsh legend Fred Keenor captained his side to victory in the 1927 FA Cup, beating Arsenal 1-0 in the final. (It was a goalkeeping error. Did you have to ask?) But more enticingly, Cardiff City holds the head-to-head advantage over its multi-trophied opponents. Of the 29 matches contested between the two, the Welsh side has won 18, lost nine and drawn two. That's right, folks: Cardiff City is a bogey team.

For the vast majority of the league that doesn't have the luxury of those fat revenue streams that beget seats at (or near) the top table, a cup's a cup. And the league cup has a proud tradition of shocks, from third division QPR's 3-2 win over West Bromwich Albion in 1967; through Oxford United upending QPR in 1986; to Sheffield Wednesday's 1-0 win over Manchester United in 1991, the last time a second division team won a major prize. Big shiny silver pots with lids that fit imperfectly onto grinning, champagne-soaked heads are the point of the whole business, after all, and while Liverpool is a heavy favorite with the bookies, Cardiff City has everything in place to frustrate them.

A prediction, in the safe and certain knowledge that it will be dramatically inaccurate: Liverpool 1-0 Cardiff City.

With thanks to Steve from Spirit of Mirko.

Andi Thomas is a football writer based in London. He edits Twisted Blood and writes for The FCF and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter here.