Liverpool aim to avoid misfiring like the Gunners

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2012, 12:00am

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Liverpool have a golden opportunity for a first piece of silverware in six years when they play Championship side Cardiff City in tomorrow's Carling Cup final.

But if Kenny Dalglish senses any complacency from his players he need only point to Arsenal's upset defeat by Birmingham a year ago.

The Gunners, too, were trying to end a six-year drought without a trophy and were hot favourites against a team that were ultimately relegated. But they lost 2-1 after a defensive mix-up that handed the winning goal to Obafemi Martins.

The pressure mounts on Arsene Wenger with each year that passes without a trophy, but Liverpool find themselves in a similar situation.

No doubt Dalglish - in the wake of the turmoil caused by the Luis Suarez affair - will be keen to show the club's American owners he is a safe pair of hands in terms of taking the club forward.

It is a sorry situation for Liverpool and Arsenal that they are reduced to picking up the crumbs in the least prestigious of English football's three major competitions.

During Liverpool's heyday, when they were English champions 10 times in a glorious 15-year period that also brought four European Cups, it was Manchester United who had to rely on the domestic cups to adorn their trophy cabinet.

The positions have been reversed since Liverpool were knocked off their perch following their last domestic league title 22 years ago.

In the meantime, United have been Premier League champions on 12 occasions and won two European Cups to Liverpool's one.

Liverpool may have lagged a long way behind United in terms of consistency, but cup competitions have been a creative spark for Steven Gerrard and company in the past decade - most notably in the treble season of 2000-01 and the magical Champions League success of 2005.

When they have reached a final in recent years, Liverpool have rarely let the opportunity of taking some silverware slip from their grasp.

In the 22 years since their last league success, Liverpool have appeared in eight domestic finals and won six of them (the two defeats were both against fellow big-six clubs Manchester United, in the 1996 FA Cup final, and Chelsea, in the 2005 Carling Cup final).

When they have played a team from outside the big six in a cup final, Liverpool have won all five since their shock defeat by Wimbledon in the 1988 FA Cup final, although they have had a couple of scares. Eleven years ago, in the League Cup final in its pre-Carling days, Liverpool were taken to extra time and penalties by Birmingham, who at that time were a division below them. And in their last domestic final, in the FA Cup in 2006, Gerrard rescued Liverpool with a last-minute equaliser against West Ham and again they were able to win on penalties.

But shock defeats in finals are rare, and Liverpool shouldn't slip up. Cardiff are not even as good as Birmingham in the Championship this season, which shows Liverpool have an easier task than Arsenal faced last year. Liverpool, unlike Arsenal, have the considerable advantage of a sound defence. They have kept 10 clean sheets in 25 league matches - a record bettered only by the two Manchester clubs - and their goals-against column is the second-best at an average of less than a goal per game.

While they have often found it difficult to impose themselves in attack against Premier League opponents, Dalglish's side have had no such problem against lower-league opponents in cup competitions. Last Sunday they hammered Brighton 6-1 at home in the FA Cup, having beaten the same opponents 2-1 away early in the Carling Cup, and they also eased through against League One strugglers Exeter in this competition.

Cardiff are much better than Exeter but barely above Brighton in the Championship, which gives a fairly accurate formline to tomorrow's match. Liverpool have beaten Brighton by an aggregate of 8-2 in home and away cup ties, while Cardiff were beaten 3-1 at home by Brighton in their only league meeting so far this season.

Cardiff clearly will have to raise their game to live with Liverpool, though there is encouragement in their record against the better teams in the Championship. They have scored in all 10 games against teams in the top eight and have the joint-highest number of points in that category, although they have conceded in eight of those 10 games.

While the first instinct in finals is to expect a low-scoring contest, the Carling Cup tends to go against that trend - often when the teams are least evenly matched - and that could be the case again judging by Liverpool's more free-scoring stats in cup competitions.

The expectation is that Liverpool will get on top early and, with the attacking verve of Suarez and Craig Bellamy, make their superiority count over 90 minutes. The Liverpool win-win on the HaFu, over 2.5 goals and Liverpool on the handicap are the recommended bets, and it would be no surprise if Liverpool ran out winners by a three- or four-goal margin.

TOP 5 BETS

1 Aston Villa on handicap

Still unbeaten away to bottom-half teams

2 Osasuna home win

Good chance against poor travellers Granada

3 Stuttgart home win

Freiburg are poor away to teams outside the bottom six

4 Wolfsburg home win

Six wins out of eight at home to teams outside the top six

5 Werder Bremen home win

Rarely slip up against lesser teams at home

Shortlist

Sunderland, Aston Villa, Espanyol, Osasuna, Stuttgart, Wolfsburg, Werder Bremen.