Liverpool make their long-awaited Wembley return tomorrow, squaring off with Cardiff City in the final of the League Cup. It's Liverpool's first cup final in nearly five years, and their first chance at a League Cup trophy since 2005, when they fell to Chelsea 3-2 at the Millenium Stadium. Liverpool will face a tough Cardiff side, one that's earned their ticket to the final with hard-fought victories and results they've had to grind out to progress.
It's probably not an overstatement to say that all of the Liverpool-loving world has been waiting for tomorrow to come---sure, it's not a Champions League final or a chance to clinch a Premier League title, but after the troubles and turmoil the club's experienced in the years that have passed since their last chance at silverware in Athens, a potential return to any sort of glory is a hotly anticipated event. That it comes in the League Cup is inconsequential. It's a chance to see Liverpool lift a trophy. End of.
As so many have been eager to remind you, though, heading back to Merseyside with the League Cup in tow is no foregone conclusion. Liverpool are certainly the favorites, with form in domestic cup competitions this season that can't be matched anywhere else in the country. But their inconsistencies and tendency to frustrate leave cause for concern, and with a stubborn and resolute opposition added to the mix, there's no doubt tomorrow poses a healthy challenge.
As noted in the intro, Cardiff have steadily worked their way through the competition, opening with a pair of two goal wins, the first of which came at Oxford United in the only away fixture of their cup run until the semi-final. Penalties with Leicester City would follow those victories, with Malky Mackay's side going back and forth with their guests until Gelson Fernandes missed, allowing Paul Quinn to slot home the decisive penalty. They next took down Burnley 1-0 at Cardiff City Stadium, and got past Blackburn---the only top-flight opposition they drew in the competition---in a 2-0 victory. Their passage through the two legs of the semi-final with Crystal Palace once again led to penalties; both sides won their home leg 1-0, and with nothing to separate them after 30 minutes of extra time, they went to the spot, with the Welsh side advancing to the final as Palace missed three of their four chances. Worth noting that league form's been a struggle since their place at Wembley was secured, winning only once and losing three of the other four.
Mackay's eleven has been fairly standard throughout the competition, with Tom Heaton, who saved two penalties in the win over Palace and is expected to return from an ankle injury, in goal, and a back line that includes Ben Turner, Andrew Taylor, Kevin McNaughton, and one of Mark Hudson (who's coming back from a calf injury) or Anthony Gerrard. The midfield will include the talented and on-form Peter Whittingham and Aron Gunnarson, with Don Cowie, Joe Mason, and Craig Conway rounding things out behind Kenny Miller up top.
Who starts for Liverpool?
Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique
Suarez Carroll Bellamy
---Once again, Lucas is the only confirmed absence for Liverpool, as both Daniel Agger and Craig Bellamy are expected to make their returns after missing out against Brighton last weekend.
---With Agger fit, it's a return to the first-choice back line ahead of Pepe Reina. Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique will continue in the fullback roles, and Agger should re-join Martin Skrtel at the heart of the Liverpool defense. There's a sentimental shout for Jamie Carragher to get the nod, and while there's maybe room for a late run-out if Liverpool can afford the luxury, there's no reason that Skrtel and Agger shouldn't be anchoring things in the center.
---Uncertainty remains in the midfield, although it seems fairly clear that the three of Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson, and Charlie Adam will figure in some capacity. Against Brighton that meant Gerrard and Adam behind the freer Henderson, who was able to move throughout the forward areas and try to link with an active and fluid attacking trio. Jay Spearing could have a role to play, but at present there's nothing to suggest that the three names mentioned won't be starting.
---The remaining names should be easy enough, with a fit Craig Bellamy coming back into the side to face his hometown club, joining Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez up top. Suarez was effective from the wide areas last weekend, and with Carroll finding form, Bellamy could be a devastating addition. That wouldn't leave room for Stewart Downing, Maxi, or Dirk Kuyt; no qualms about the former, because, no kidding, but it'd be nice for the latter pair at some point.
What's the most important factor for the Reds?
In case you haven't heard, Liverpool really shouldn't be looking past Cardiff or assuming that they've got this one locked up. And by all accounts they haven't at all, with everything coming out of Anfield indicating that they're treating this with the proper amount of respect and care. If anything Liverpool will have to ramp it up a bit given their lack of consistent cutting edge this season, especially against the teams every feels they "should" be beating. Their failures in that regard this season haven't been as much about failing to take the opposition seriously as they have been a product of their inability to convert the opportunities they create. So yes, don't look past Cardiff and all that, but they also need to do what's asked of them all season long.
This one will obviously be easy enough to catch if you've got the television service, with BBC1 airing the match in England and Fox Soccer Channel showing it stateside. That'll once again make streaming options more widely available as well, which will be linked in the matchday thread early tomorrow. Team sheets will run once they're released, usually around an hour or so ahead of kickoff. And as usual, you can get involved in the comments section or over on Twitter, where we'll be around most of today and tomorrow.
See you first thing tomorrow, and let's hope we can celebrate Liverpool lifting the League Cup by day's end.