Liverpool 3 West Ham United 3: Gerrard the Great imposes his iron will on upstart Hammers
Monday 15 May 2006
Steven Gerrard was presented with the FA Cup by Prince William - and where else in British public life, other than this 125-year-old competition, were the paths of these two young men likely to cross? One had inherited the expectation of an entire generation of Englishmen who pray that he might just be the man to renew hope in one of our nation's most treasured institutions. The other one was Prince William.
With one performance, Gerrard told English football that, come the World Cup finals this summer, an England team without Wayne Rooney have another source of inspiration; that perhaps the World Cup is not lost just yet. Ever since Rooney broke his foot, the most feasible alternative to his creative influence has been Gerrard. Over 90 minutes and another four of injury time, the Liverpool captain gave stunning evidence to support that theory.
As cramp took a grip of his legs - not to mention the exhaustion of the 57 matches he has played this season - Gerrard's injury-time equaliser reminded us that he is a man for the big occasion, a rare character capable of imposing his will upon the most unpromising circumstances. It took a match as dramatic as Saturday's to draw the very best from him; if those are the terms he requires in which to perform then he should find them in Germany this summer.
The Liverpool support love an ending like this - you only need to glance at the mawkish cod philosophy of their banners to know they could quote Henry V to describe a frame of pub snooker. One banner suggested they were writing history, but given the circumstances of their three most famous recent finals - this FA Cup and 2001, and last season's European Cup final - they have a greater talent for rewriting the history of a game, usually in the last few minutes by way of an improbable comeback.
In those three finals they have led once, only for a matter of minutes at the end of the 2001 FA Cup final. Each time they have had the game's key player, Michael Owen in 2001 and then Gerrard on the last two occasions. In the European Super Cup final against CSKA Moscow in August, Liverpool were 12 minutes into extra time before they led. Alan Pardew's claim - that, with Gerrard, West Ham United would be favourites - had seemed unusually provocative; by close of play it felt like he was right.
Saturday's game ended in the best traditions of the FA Cup, injured players unable to leave the field because substitutions had been used up, cramp attacks striking all over the pitch and redemption in the space of an afternoon for the goalkeeper Jose Reina, who was the fall guy at 3.45pm but the hero by 6.30pm. Liverpool took over in extra time just as West Ham had taken control of the first 30 minutes. What made it a great final was the capacity of the FA Cup to challenge the cold logic of a 38-game Premiership season. Where else would a defender as supreme as Jamie Carragher has been this season turn a cross - from Lionel Scaloni - into his own net? Then seven minutes later, on 28 minutes, it was Reina's turn, fumbling Yossi Benayoun's pass and presenting the ball to Dean Ashton to roll into the net.
At that point Liverpool were in desperate need of a rescue act. Xabi Alonso, back for the first time since 7 May, was so unsure of himself that he would later allow a simple pass to roll underneath his foot. Harry Kewell, another early substitution, had an obvious victim for his pace at right-back in Scaloni but never once attacked him. Then Gerrard picked out Djibril Cissé at the back post on 32 minutes and Liverpool had a stake in the game again.
It will take more, you suspect, than this goal to earn the French striker the appreciation of his manager, Rafael Benitez. Cissé spent so long labouring over a foot injury in the closing stages that you wondered whether his career might be in doubt, by the end he was dancing vigorously amid the team celebrations. "I have done my best in the little bit of time I have played to show him [Benitez] what I can do but he is the boss and it is up to him," Cissé said. "He has said nothing to me - maybe after the World Cup."
Another intriguing sub-plot, but the match roared on. Marlon Harewood was denied by Reina seconds into the second half and then Gerrard belted home an equaliser six minutes before the hour from Peter Crouch's knock-down. It was the cue for West Ham to collapse and yet Pardew's side rose again. In 1990, as a Crystal Palace player, Pardew was eight minutes from winning the FA Cup; on Saturday he was three minutes short. "I'm getting closer," he said.
If Liverpool's fortune was that they had Gerrard to keep them alive, then West Ham's luck was embodied in their goals. Paul Konchesky's cross from the left on 64 minutes seemed to change its mind mid-flight and dipped over Reina and into the net.
"When the injury-time board went up we thought our chance had gone but it is always good to have a player like Steven Gerrard in your team," Crouch said. "He came up trumps again and we owe him so much."
How to repay the debt on a goal struck from 35 yards with just injury time remaining? In extra time Liverpool finally looked like the better side; in the penalties, they most certainly were. Reina saved three, and John Arne Riise atoned for his European Cup final miss. He said he "burst into tears" after scoring - "this was closure, a chance for me to get revenge and put things right". But the final already belonged to Gerrard, who, for those of a militant Liverpudlian aspect, was the only royalty in Cardiff on Saturday.
Goals: Carragher own goal (21) 0-1; Ashton (28) 0-2; Cissé (32) 1-2; Gerrard (54) 2-2; Konchesky (64) 2-3; Gerrard (90) 3-3.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko, Alonso (Kromkamp, 68), Kewell (Morientes, 48); Cissé, Crouch (Hamann, 71). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Traoré.
West Ham United (4-4-2): Hislop; Scaloni, Ferdinand, Gabbidon, Konchesky; Benayoun, Reo-Coker, Fletcher (Dailly, 76), Etherington (Sheringham, 86); Ashton (Zamora, 71), Harewood. Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Collins.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Liverpool Carragher; West Ham United Ashton.
Man of the match: Gerrard.
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