There is always something pleasing about an FA Cup final pitting north against south - not least, when Cardiff is the venue, that neither the M4 nor M6 become totally unnavigable. For the third year in a row, supporters will negotiate their respective motorways from London and Lancashire, and for a change neither Ars-enal nor Manchester United are involved.
If there are echoes this time of United's tie two seasons ago against Millwall's cockney pitbulls, who on the day failed to raise as much as a growl, hope abounds that West Ham United's underdogs will have the bite to match their bark. They certainly have more about them than Dennis Wise's sorry pack, who somehow made it to the Millennium without overcoming a single team of Premiership pedigree; after winning at Norwich back in January, the Hammers have seen off Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester City and Middlesbrough in successive rounds. No southern softies these.
Not that anyone is rushing to talk up their chances against a Liverpool side who have beaten them twice this season, the second time at Upton Park as recently as two weeks ago. Hayden Mullins, a competitive central midfielder, and Luis Garcia were dismissed late in that game for brushing each other with their handbags and will miss the final.
Given the resources available to each manager, it is logical to suggest that West Ham's loss will be the greater and that of the replacements the Welsh journeyman Carl Fletcher (193 games for Bournemouth) might be less of a force than Fernando Morientes (a similar number, and three Champions' League medals, for Real Madrid).
Alan Pardew disputes that, partly on the grounds that Garcia was such an influence in West Ham's 2-0 defeat at Anfield last October. More worrying, he believes, are the injuries that will keep Dean Ashton and Matthew Etherington out of today's last Premiership match against Tottenham and may not have healed by Saturday. "We're sweating on two key players," he admitted.
Ashton may be the club's record signing at an extravagant £7.2 million, proof of renewed ambition and financial strength, but he has an obvious understudy in Bobby Zamora. For Etherington, an exciting attacker down the left flank who, like Zamora, has grown in confidence since leaving Spurs, there is no real replacement. His value on Saturday would be not just in threatening the occasionally vulnerable Liverpool right-back Steve Finnan, but in requiring Steven Gerrard to attend to defensive duties too. Pardew must be cursing the oaf who kicked him in training on Friday.
Without Etherington, let alone Ashton as well, the odds will shorten even further on Liverpool, lucky victors of the first Cardiff Cup final in 2001, winning what with the best will in the world ought to be the last one. They are in superb form, on a run of 10 successive wins going to Portsmouth this afternoon, and fully deserved the semi-final success over Chelsea. Having put out Manchester United as well qualifies as taking the hard road to Wales, and a total of 17 goals in five rounds has helped end the scoring blight that meant elimination from the Champions' League.
United ought to deprive them today of runners-up position in the Premiership, but Rafael Benitez should by now have come to understand that the FA Cup is still a greater prize than that.
The Spaniard's thoughts will have been far from Merseyside on the autumn day in 1989 when Liverpool humiliated Crystal Palace by nine goals to nil. Pardew's weren't; he was part of the beaten team and therefore enjoyed all the more the taste of scoring the winner against them in the epic Cup semi-final later the same season. The final against United, a thrilling 3-3 draw followed by a feisty 1-0 defeat, also taught some lessons for life, as well as having a bizarre finish when Pardew discovered while walking off that he had been handed the referee's medal instead of his own.
While not the type to throw a loser's medal - or the referee's - into the bin, he insists of Saturday's great occasion: "I won't enjoy the game unless we win. And I want the players to feel that as well. It's only two years ago we were on that pitch feeling the greatest disappointment you can ever imagine."
That was a play-off final defeat against Crystal Palace, retrospectively a blessing in disguise in allowing 12 months' extra development for a young team who returned the following season to beat Preston just as Palace were slipping straight back down.
Oddly, the two games mean that West Ham's side will have greater experience of Cardiff than their opponents, of whom only Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Steven Gerrard survive from the victory over Ars-enal five years ago. "A lot of things will be similar to the play-offs," Pardew says. "The stadium will be full, the changing rooms, getting to the ground and the surface don't change. In terms of the prestige of the competition and the media coverage, that's far greater, and I don't know what effect it will have. I'm hoping it's positive."
What will not faze his team is falling behind. Nine times this season they have recovered from going a goal down to win or draw: "We probably handle going a goal down better than we do going a goal up. We haven't quite sussed that one yet."
Failure to close the door on a game, as the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, likes to call it, tends to be a sign of inexperience and has cost West Ham the chance of finishing in the top six, a position they held in February. The Cup run then began to prove something of a distraction, but has now earned a return to European football for the first time since 1999 regardless of Saturday's result.
Which, with respect to an impressive young manager and his improving squad, is probably just as well.Reuse content