by Liam McConville

The script had been written weeks ago. As soon as the final whistle blew at Anfield after a pulsating semi-final against Manchester City, Liverpool fans began to dream once more. A return to Wembley after sixteen years away from what was once dubbed ‘Anfield South’ and a chance for the club to put this season’s controversies behind them. Redemption for Suarez, Bellamy against his hometown club, a chance for Kenny Dalglish to justify his significant spending; there was more subplots going into this than an episode of Hollyoaks. Standing between the Reds and Wembley glory was Championship outfit Cardiff. What could possibly go wrong?

The Bluebirds as it turned out had other ideas as they took an early lead before taking Liverpool to penalties after a late equaliser in extra time. Cardiff were resilient and stubborn in frustrating their illustrious opponents and deserved more than the ignominy of a shoot out defeat. Liverpool’s big players didn’t show up, Suarez was subdued while Gerrard struggled to live up to past glories with a disappointing personal performance which culminated in his penalty being kept out by a brilliant save from Cardiff keeper Tom Heaton. Heaton’s heroics though would be in vain as Liverpool triumphed 3-2 on penalties with the Liverpool skipper’s cousin, Anthony missing the deciding kick.

Cardiff who were huge underdogs going into the match came out with plenty of credit for a performance that showed that they could compete at against top flight opposition. The Welsh outfit have been knocking on the door of the Premier League for years now but perhaps their cup exerts may thwart their promotion hopes as their form has dipped in the run up to the final. What is a given is that Malky Mackay is a very talented young manager who has certainly earned the new deal he was awarded recently.

Liverpool’s performance was reflective of their season, being the dominant team against weaker opposition but failing to take their chances. Their lack of potency was on show for the world to see as they racked up a staggering amount of shots without really looking like scoring for the majority of the match. Indeed the man of the match and by far Liverpool’s best performer was the much maligned Stewart Downing who has finally started to repay the faith that Dalglish has shown in him.

Even three years ago Liverpool demolished Real Madrid and Manchester United in the space of four days.

Perhaps the biggest question to emerge in the aftermath of the celebrations of the final is where does Liverpool go from here. The sheer elation shown by the fans, players and management shows how much this win means to the whole club but as my Manchester United mates have repeatedly reminded me, it is also a sign of how much Liverpool have fallen in recent years. Qualifying for the Champions League would represent a landmark achievement never mind reaching two finals in three seasons. Even three years ago Liverpool demolished Real Madrid and Manchester United in the space of four days as they came as close as ever to ending their torturous wait for a league title.

However from then on it has been a steady decline that has showed a slight upturn since the return of Dalglish, but I emphasise slight. Sure Dalglish lifted a clubs that was well and truly in the doldrums midway through last season but Liverpool haven’t built on last season’s promising finish and have endured a rollercoaster of a season until now. The signings made since King Kenny returned have been indifferent to say the least. Many more intelligent observers than myself baulked at the exorbitant fees that owner John Henry forked out for. The likes of Henderson, Carroll and Downing have been weighed down by the millions spent on them. This significant outlay was designed to bring the Merseyside outfit back in line with Europe’s elite but with two thirds of the season gone, Liverpool are seven points away from fourth with a game in hand. Although overhauling that gap isn’t unthinkable it is certainly likely that the newly crowned Carling Cup champions will be playing their reserves in next year’s Europa League.

What makes their league campaign all the more frustrating for Liverpool fans worldwide is that this season is a great opportunity. The worst Arsenal and Chelsea sides for over a decade are currently battling for fourth and both will surely strengthen over the summer making Liverpool aim of getting back to the top even more difficult. If Liverpool can build on this win and go on the sort of a run which has typified the club then this could become a great season. With an FA Cup quarter final against Stoke coming up Liverpool’s next trip to Wembley may well come later this season.

Only the most delusional of fans would believe that a Carling Cup victory heralds an immediate return to the glory days of the seventies and eighties but if lessons are learnt then perhaps it could be the first step in a long journey back to their perch.