Saturday, May 13, 2006

Where does one begin to write about an FA Cup Final which has just about everything that makes the beautiful game the spectacle it is- poached goals, freak goals, great goals- defensive lapses, keeping errors and wonder saves- great comebacks, last minute fireworks, penalty shoot-outs.

Of late, the FA Cup, despite being the second-oldest Cup competition in football, has lost some of its glamour compared with the money-spinning 380-game premiership- but the final however still retains the old aura. One glance at a full Millenium Stadium and the entire crowd on its feet singing "Abide With Me" was enough to confirm that.

Coincidentially, the last time these two teams won an FA Cup Final it was against the same club- Arsenal. In 1980 West Ham, the confirmed underdogs, won by a solitary goal against a Terry Neill's Arsenal side boasting of players like David O'Leary, Pat Jennings, Liam Brady and Frank Stapleton. In 2001 Liverpool after being under the cosh and a goal down for eighty minutes came back with two Michael Owen strikes to break Gunners' hearts.

The placid beginning of the match did not prepare anyone for the fireworks that were to come. Under the Cardiff Sun both teams were cautious, testing each other out, seeking to win the tactical battle in midfield. But then on twenty minutes the match was set alight. Dean Ashton's astute ball to Scaloni ended with a dangerous cross being fired in low across the face of goal and Jamie Carragher scored a disastrous own goal past the stunned Reina. Minutes later it got worse when Etherington's snapshot was spilled by Reina and Ashton pokes the ball home to send the West Ham fans into delirium.

"Istanbul, Istanbul..." you could almost hear the voices in your head. Somehow one felt the game was far from done and dusted. And so proved to be the case. Crouch was harshly adjudged to have been offside after a superb finish from Gerrard's cross- but moments later Cisse scored from an identical position. Liverpool finished the half stronger and went into the break upbeat despite being the goal down.

But within minutes of the restart West Ham almost put the game to bed, Reina making a super double-save to deny first Hareweood and thebn Benayoun. It seemed to be Istanbul all over again then as Kewell was injured- just like in the Champions' League final- and had to be replaced. Morientes came on. And then on fifty four minutes, Liverpool scored the quintessential "English goal"- a cross from the left was headed back into the danger area by crouch and Gerrard lashed home from twelve yards- 2-2. At this point Liverpool were looking the stronger, but a freak goal from England hopeful Paul Konchesky pegged them back again- and attempted cross from the left looping over a stranded Reina and into the far corner. Liverpool felt it was time to ring in the changes- Jan Kromkamp on for Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamman, one of the heroes of Istanbul, replacing Peter Crouch.

Why Benitez chose to replace a striker with the aerial prowess of crouch with a midfielder, particularly when a goal down, remains a matter of debate. The introduction of Hamman slowed down the Liverpool attacks considerably, and the Reds suddenly began to look laboured. West Ham defended stoutly, determined that they would not be denied after twenty-six years. Wave upon wave of Liverpool attacks broke upon the rocks that were Anton Ferdinand and Danny Gabbidon. Came the ninety minute mark and it seemed the Cup was heading back to London. The fourth official signalled four minutes of stoppage time...

And up stepped Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain let fly from thirty yards, an astounding volley with enough power and precision to beat Shaka Hislop all ends up and settle into the bottom corner of the net. A wonderful goal from a wonderful player at a wonderful time. 3-3... had there ever been a more dramatic and entertaining FA Cup Final?

More was to come. A dour half an hour of extra time saw several players come down with cramp, Cisse's leg bandaged and Harewood's toe damaged. In the very last minute West Ham had a chance to snatch victory, but Reina made a superb save to deny captain Nigel Reo-Coker, tipping the ball against the inside of the post. Harewood stabbed the rebound wide, and the stage was set for penalties.

Dietmar Hamman and Teddy Sheringham both scored, while misses from Sammy Hypia and Bobby Zamora meant that it was 1-1 after two penalties. However, Reina then won the Cup for the Merseysiders after two brilliant saves of Konchesky and Ferdinand. Heartbrake for the Hammers, ecstacy for the Reds. All in all a brilliant game of football played by two fearless sides who went for it from the word go, a treat for all footie lovers and yet another testament to the beauty of this timeless game.

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