I'm fairly certain that, while Kenny Dalglish may not exchange Christmas cards with Arsene Wenger
they can both agree on this: It is more important to not lose the Carling Cup than it is to win it. On Sunday, Liverpool narrowly defeated championship side Cardiff City, winning 3-2 (technically 2-2) after a comical, watch-through-your-fingers shootout that seemed to encapsulate 40 years of English penalty-taking in a matter of minutes.
It was a fantastic cup final. But that's all it was: a cup final. Winning the Carling Cup doesn't make you one of Europe's elite, nor does it fill your club's coffers with jewels and trinkets. I don't even think the players get a lifetime supply of Carling out of it (which is probably for the best). It just means you won something. It's the bronze medal of English football. There's no evidence that winning the Carling Cup does anything to lift the clubs' performances or statures. But there is something to suggest that losing the final acts as a rather strong tractor beam into a landfill of misery. That "something" is the last 365 days of Arsenal Football Club.
On February 27, 2011, Obafemi Martins, who had, at that point, seemed to have played for about 68 clubs and been on this earth for 200 years, scored an injury-time winner in the Carling Cup final at Wembley Stadium, stabbing the heavily favored Arsenal in the heart, and awarding the trophy to soon-to-be-relegated Birmingham.
It was a huge upset and an enormous disappointment for Arsenal. Its manager, Arsene Wenger, had often downplayed the importance of the League Cup, using it as a platform for some of his highly vaunted young players. For fans of Football Manager it was a chance to see Sanchez Watt and Henri Lansbury in the flesh. For everyone else it was a sign that Wenger hardly prioritized the competition.
The 2010-11 League Cup was different. Wenger, sensing a growing, vocal unease over Arsenal's then six-year trophy drought, saw that the "third best" cup in England was Arsenal's best chance at some silverware, so he began playing much stronger lineups.
Which made it all the more painful when Arsenal defender Laurent Koscielny and keeper Wojciech Szczesny acted out some kind of silent-film slapstick involving grown men chasing after a kitten, allowing Martins to pounce and kick off Arsenal's year of miserable thinking.
After the Gunners lost at Wembley, they proceeded to go out of Europe (losing to Barcelona), the FA Cup (at the hands of Manchester United), and sputter to the Premier League finish line like a Peugeot running out of gas, winding up in fourth place. Winning the League Cup would likely not have kept Samir Nasri or Cesc Fabregas, both of whom departed the club in the summer, but it certainly didn't help matters.
Anyone who has read this column or watched the Premier League this season knows how the club's 2011-12 season has gone for the Gunners; several great results (Chelsea, Blackburn, the fairy-tale ending to the Leeds FA Cup game) mixed in with some facepalm-bad losses (Milan, Manchester United Blackburn).
So tenuous is life on the border of England's elite teams, so necessary is it for the sake of finances and appearances to constantly be competing for something bigger, something brighter, that Liverpool was probably acutely aware — from director of football Damien Comolli down to the (possibly fictional) tea lady that English clubs still supposedly employ — that the embarrassment of losing to Cardiff would probably have a more profound negative effect than any lift that winning the Carling Cup would give them.
You could feel this sense of both relief and underwhelming from the Liverpool players in their post-match comments. "I just think — the Carling Cup for Birmingham last year. Was it a platform for them? It certainly wasn't," said Craig Bellamy, who was perhaps trying to downplay the importance of the victory in light of the fact that he had just helped defeat his boyhood club, Cardiff. But he was not alone in his tempered response to the trophy. Jamie Carragher said, "Yes, it is nice to have it in the bag, but we are bigger and better than that."
For Steven Gerrard, the problem was probably more result of the nature of the victory. In a penalty shootout that saw the Liverpool captain's shot blocked on a save of a lifetime by Cardiff keeper Tom Heaton, the match was actually decided by another Gerrard; Steven's cousin, Anthony. The lesser-known Gerrard shanked a penalty wide of Pepe Reina's goal, giving Liverpool the edge in the shootout. After the match, Steven Gerrard was understandably measured in his reaction: "It was always going to be the case that one of us was going to be sad and one would be celebrating. I have mixed emotions at the moment. Obviously I'm delighted to have won a trophy for our supporters, but I feel for Anthony and Cardiff. It doesn't matter what I say to him at this time. I have been there when I scored an own-goal against Chelsea. I will be here for him after the game and all the family will be behind him."
Over and over, Liverpool players talked about being happy for the supporters, about paying them back for so many years without a cup to celebrate, without a trip to Wembley to enjoy. But if you read between the lines, it sounds more like "Thank God we didn't lose" than "Thank God we won."
The Best I Ever Had
Speaking of the Almighty, he or she seems to have a very interesting sense of humor when it comes to Arsenal. After putting the club through one of the most punishing weeks in its recent history, whatever deity oversees football bestowed onto the Gunners, its players, and its fans one of its more memorable victories.
Here are some quick hits about a typically wonderful North London derby (the below video is rather Arsenal-centric, but the production is so nice I thought it would be fun to post — sorry, Spurs fans):
• Arsene Wenger often talks about mental strength, usually within some mild-mannered monologue about "quality." If any one player showed that strength, it was the one Gunner who is so often accused of lacking in the mental department: Theo Walcott. He may have an abysmal first touch, and his crosses often look addressed to someone living in Vermont rather than to one of his teammates, but after getting booed by his own supporters for most of the first half Walcott showed some incredible resilience to put away two goals. The rap on Walcott is that his career has hit some kind of wall, but statistically, he's had a very good year, scoring five in the league and nicely hooking up Robin van Persie. Had the Dutch striker passed back to Walcott in the 35th minute, Walcott might have had a hat trick instead of the two finely taken goals he nabbed.
• Special mention must also go to Tomas Rosicky. Usually the Czech midfielder is the one player in the world who I think could benefit from Paul Ince's particularly basic brand of coaching ("SHOOT!"), but Rosicky played like his shorts were on fire. Slotted in the role usually reserved for the injured Aaron Ramsey, Rosicky was all over the place, scything down Spurs players and scoring Arsenal's third.
• When Gareth Bale went down, drawing a penalty that led to Tottenham's second goal, I couldn't help but be reminded of the last time he "ran" into Wojciech Szczesny (who called this victory one of his best ever and compared it to Arsenal's defeat of Barcelona in last season's Champions League).
• Tottenham has United at White Hart Lane and Stevenage in the FA Cup next week. United is United and Harry Redknapp seems constitutionally opposed to beating Sir Alex Ferguson, but if Spurs somehow lose to Stevenage or even drop points away to Everton on March 10, people will start wondering whether the "Redknapp for England" speculation is actually hurting Spurs.
• I don't know what was more surprising, the fact that Arsenal was going into tackles like a bunch of teenagers hopped up on Nerds or the fact that Tottenham seemed so blasÚ about the match in the first place. Emmanuel Adebayor's pass to set up Louis Saha for the opening goal was beautiful, but he had a certain "who gives a shit" vibe that seemed to trickle down to his teammates.
• I would like to say that Arsenal has finally killed the ghost that's haunted them since last season's Carling Cup Final and will go on to get a Champions League place and maybe even terrify Milan in the return leg of their European clash. But well, this is Arsenal we're talking about.
• It's probably a product of the fact that they haven't had a really high-profile match in a while, but does anybody really care that Manchester City is starting to jog away with the title? They've dispatched Fulham, Villa, and now Blackburn in recent weeks. Not even a new Mario Balotelli goal celebration made me excited. What's wrong with me? They will likely be the first non-Chelsea/Manchester United champions in 10 years.
• Mark Hughes should probably join the Chris Paul Society for Men Who Do Not Like Being Touched on the Head. "Sparky" has a stick up his ass and now he's got his club, QPR, playing like it. He pretty much admitted that he sent Samba Diakite out onto the field with a mandate to kick the crap out of people, and Hughes paid the price for his caveman tactics. That was a testy, testy West London derby between Queens Park and Fulham. Looks like the Cottagers' Pavel Pogrebnyak was acutely aware of that. Check out his goal celebration. Also? If he hadn't already done so, that assist from Moussa Dembele probably sealed Pogrebnyak's transfer to one of the top six sides in the league next season.
• Terry Connor drew with Newcastle in his first game in charge of Wolves. I really don't know what he said at halftime, with his side down 2-0, but given the fact that he looks like he could flatten an aluminum can full of soda WITH HIS MIND, it was probably pretty inspiring.
Goal of the Week: Grant Holt, Norwich (at 1:27)
I know that Jonas Gutierrez let off a rocket against Wolves and van Persie pulled another poetry-inspiring turn-and-shoot against Spurs, but GRANT HOLT, people! Against United! And look at that muffed celebration!
Quote of the Week: Andre Villas-Boas
One of my favorite things in English football is the "player or manager gives interview to foreign press and said interview gets roughly translated back to England" phenomenon. Check out what the Chelsea boss had to say to Portugal's TSF radio station: "I think I have felt the confidence from Abramovich. But the pattern of behavior of the owner has led to a downfall in similar situations or even 'better' situations. What will be the reaction? It will be one of the two. A continuation of the project and full support or just the cultural pattern that has happened before. We don't know." Yeah. I think we do.