Silver lining the aim for Liverpool

Liverpool look to end their six-season trophy drought Sunday afternoon when they face Cardiff City in the Carling Cup Final. The Reds are heavy favorites over the Welsh underdogs and the pressure will be on Liverpool to perform at Wembley. A win would also give manager Kenny Dalglish the only trophy that has eluded him in his career.

With Liverpool struggling to clamber past Chelsea, Arsenal and Newcastle to secure a spot in next year’s Champions League, this Cup may be the Reds’ best chance to win silver this season as well as ensuring a spot in Europe. A win here would also give the club a psychological boost for their late run at a top-four finish and a Champions League ticket.

Liverpool need a big win, too. This has been a testing season for both the club and Dalglish as they have found themselves embroiled in a series of controversies.

The Luis Suarez case is the big one, and it continues to hang over the club despite their best attempts to draw a line under it. It was ugly to begin with, but when Suarez refused to shake Patrice Evra’s hand two weeks ago, that was the last straw for all but the most blinded backers of the club.

Liverpool subsequently scrambled to have all parties involved apologize, but the damage has been incalcuable. Particular attention was paid to Dalglish’s handling of the matter, which can only charitably be described as clumsy. It is a deep stain on his legacy and on a club that is owned, in part, by one of the sports world’s best-known African-Americans, LeBron James.

The irony is that the Suarez situation has overshadowed the fact that Liverpool has genuinely worked hard to overcome a troubled past when it comes to race. English and Scottish teams were late to integrate, and it was only 25 years ago that John Barnes was the first black athlete to transfer into the club. (Howard Gayle, who only made five appearances, was the first player to break the colour line at the club in 1977.)

Barnes had a rough time. He has claimed some Liverpool supporters urged him not to join the club and one of the most indelible images of that era is a photograph of him being pelted by bananas during a derby match against Everton. Barnes, however, was backed to the hilt by his manager, and it can be fairly said that both men helped changed the culture of the club. That manager was Dalglish.

Barnes is today considered one of the greats of the club, and Liverpool’s lineup has contained a who’s who of great English black athletes. Stan Collymore, Paul Ince and David James are among the many who have worn their kit. It’s also worth noting that one player called Suarez’s punishment a “witch-hunt.” That man? John Barnes.

The bottom line is that a Cup win would represent nothing less than an exorcism for a club that could use one.

Cardiff City of course are just as desperate to win some silverware: the last major English trophy they won was the FA Cup – in 1927.

Since then, they have been the team that has often come close, only to fall at the final hurdle. They watched arch-rivals Swansea leap past them into the Premier League, have fallen two seasons in a row in the Championship playoffs, and lost a dramatic FA Cup final that would have granted them a European place.

Cardiff have also had off-field turmoil. They survived a near-bankruptcy just two years ago as well a ticketing fiasco that enraged the club’s fan base. The Bluebirds  have done very well on limited funds but have been forced to move on many of their best and homegrown players over the years to raise funds. They face some questions over their lineup with captain Mark Hudson (calf) and Stephen McPhail (auto-immune disorder) game-time decisions.

Cardiff do have a couple of players that can hurt Liverpool. Kenny Miller is an experienced striker looking to shake off his spot-kick miss in the semifinals against Crystal Palace while Don Cowie has impressed out wide on the wing. Peter Whittingham and Rudy Gestede looked good in the semifinals with Filip Kiss providing off-the-bench spark. And keep an eye on second-string keeper Tom Heaton. He has been preferred in the Cup to regular David Marshall and rewarded manager Malky Mackay’s faith by stopping two attempts in the penalty tie-break against Palace that took Cardiff to Wembley.

One major sub-plot on the field involves a former Cardiff player, Liverpool’s Craig Bellamy, who scored the critical goal against Manchester City in the semifinals to take them to Wembley and has been a sparkplug for his club this season. Yet this is a match he has admitted he does not want to play.

Cardiff City is not only his hometown team, but the club he played for last season. Ironically, he missed last year’s Championship play-off final with an injury, so it stings that his first trip to Wembley will be to face off against the club he adores.

Bellamy, who has shrugged off a back injury, will be a game-time decision. Dalglish is likely to take the striker’s emotional state into account and may keep Stewart Downing out wide left. Andy Carroll, who has been a massive disappointment, is still likely to run alongside Suarez, with Bellamy providing the punch off the bench.

The only notable absence is likely to be Jamie Carragher, who has lost his starting spot. Martin Skrtel, Jose Enrique, Daniel Agger and Glen Johnson will man the line in front of Pepe Reina while Steven Gerrard will captain and steer the side.