Having finished last season in the most dramatic fashion imaginable, winning the Champions' League on penalties after recovering from 3-0 down, Liverpool went out on another high yesterday, securing the FA Cup in the most exciting and highest scoring final since Manchester United and Crystal Palace drew 3-3 in 1990. The game had as many twists and turns as that earlier meeting of north and south with the favourites falling 2-0 behind and equalising in the final minute of normal time.
They scored three superb goals by Djibril Cissé and the outstanding Steven Gerrard (two), and conceded three dreadful ones, an own goal by Jamie Carragher being followed by two goalkeeping howlers. Unlike United's Jim Leighton 16 years ago (who was dropped for the replay) Jose Reina had the opportunity to redeem himself, and grasped it more securely than he had earlier been handling the ball. In extra-time, with six substitutes already on and most players barely able to raise a trot, he pushed Nigel Reo-Coker's effort on to a post, then saved three of West Ham's four penalties, admittedly when well off his line.
It was all brutally hard on West Ham, who have performed so well in their first season back among the big boys and looked like breaking the hold of the four leading clubs on the Cup stretching back more than a decade. A return to the Premiership has been worth £25m and Alan Pardew acknowledges that a good proportion of that wealth will need to be spent augmenting his squad.
They have scored plenty of goals, and continued the development of an excellent young midfield man and captain in Reo-Coker, but have been short in defence, conceding more than twice as many goals as yesterday's opponents while finishing 27 points behind them in the League. The other lesson for the Upton Park board to take from Liverpool is that no club can stand still in the transfer market. Rafa Benitez was ruthless last summer and is certain to make further changes, with Djimi Traoré, who did not feature yesterday, Cissé and Fernando Morientes all candidates for a move.
The most important factor, however, is the enduring form of Gerrard, who somehow manages to dominate a game while playing out on one flank. Gerrard it was, warming the hearts of all English fans other than those in claret and blue, who dragged his side back into contention after the shock of two West Ham goals in the space of seven first-half minutes.
The underdogs had been untroubled in a quiet start, knocking the ball around comfortably without finding a threatening final pass. Then Dean Ashton, declared fit along with Matthew Etherington, conjured one up and the game changed. Supplied by Yossi Benayoun, Ashton waited a fraction until Lionel Scaloni, urged by his manager to get forward, burst unmarked down the right flank. Collecting Ashton's pass, he drove in the sort of low cross that gives retreating defenders the shakes, and Carragher was left looking like a drunken man falling over his feet in diverting the ball past his helpless goalkeeper.
Reina had every chance to prevent the goal that followed, astonishingly, after another seven minutes. There seemed little danger when Etherington took possession on the left of the penalty area surrounded by three red shirts, and not much more as he delivered a low shot of modest power. But Reina somehow allowed the ball to squirm out of his grip and the gentlest stab from Ashton was sufficient to send the thousands down from London into dreamland. Perhaps one or two players became carried away as well. Peter Crouch was rightly adjudged offside as he volleyed in Gerrard's free-kick, but barely 60 seconds later Gerrard crossed from a similar position and this time Cissé was legitimately placed to sweep an adroit shot into the net.
West Ham had one more opportunity, immediately after the interval, before their lead disappeared. Ashton sent Etherington scampering down the left to cross, Reina managing to block Marlon Harewood's shot from close in and then recovering to deny Benayoun's follow-up. The virtually anonymous, injury-prone Harry Kewell lasted only two minutes of the second half, a groin strain forcing him off and the arrival of Fernando Morientes effectively gave Liverpool three strikers. It was inevitable that Crouch would win a decisive header at some stage and West Ham's misfortune was that he should do so with a neat knock-down just as Gerrard was steaming into the penalty area, keeping his head over the ball to ensure it stayed just low enough to defeat Shaka Hislop.
If the force seemed to be with an experienced Liverpool side playing their 24th cup tie of the season, there was life left in the Hammers, who suddenly broke out to score their third extraordinary goal of the afternoon. Etherington fed Konchesky in an innocuous position out wide on the left for a mishit cross that sailed over the head of an embarrassed Reina into the far corner of the net. Benitez also had to withdraw Alonso, and voluntarily replaced Crouch with Dietmar Hamann. Pardew's response was to send on Bobby Zamora and the 40-year-old Teddy Sheringham, withdrawing Harewood into midfield to counter Liverpool's final push. But with four minutes of added time having been announced, John Arne Riise's cross was headed out to Gerrard who thrashed in a magnificent 35-yarder.
In extra-time Liverpool were the stronger, or the less weak; at one stage three different players were lying prone on the pitch. Penalties looked sadly inevitable for the second successive year and Reina, enhancing his reputation for saving them, kept out West Ham's first kick, by Bobby Zamora, the third, by Paul Konchesky, and the fourth by a distraught Anton Ferdinand.
Quotes of the day: 'We knew that penalties were our best chance'
We felt our best chance was penalties because we had no energy left. We always knew if it went to penalties we had a really good chance. We feel we've got the better goalkeeper on the day... he deserves to be the hero.
Steven Gerrard, Liverpool captain
It was a really bad performance by myself in the game, but I was lucky because penalties always is a lottery.
Jose Reina, Liverpool goalkeeper
Maybe we like to do it the difficult way but it's not good for the heart. It would be better if we could start by winning and then stay calm.
Rafael Benitez, Liverpool manager
I really felt we were going to win it - only a 35-yard smasher from Gerrard was going to change that... The players have been absolutely magnificent and we are proud of the way we played in making it a great game.
Alan Pardew, West Ham manager
I'm gutted, very disappointed because I thought we deserved to win it. We worked extremely hard and it was a fantastic effort... I hope everyone associated with West Ham is proud. It just wasn't our day today.
Nigel Reo-Coker, West Ham captain