By Greg Stobart at Anfield
Craig Bellamy grew up in the suburbs of Cardiff supporting both his hometown club and Liverpool. The nomadic Welshman, who has never settled during his career, will never feel more at home than in the surrounds of both clubs’ supporters on February 26.
That will be at Wembley, in the League Cup final, and Bellamy will be the centre of attention for 90,000 spectators, just as he was on Wednesday night in the semi-final second leg at Anfield.
It was on the streets of Cardiff that Bellamy developed his football skills and fierce competitiveness - and it was the Liverpool fans who reaped the reward as the 32-year-old fired the club into a first trip to Wembley since 1996.
The stage was set for him as he came back to haunt Manchester City, his former club, to punish Roberto Mancini for freezing him out. Bellamy will feel he has made his point to City after they let him join Liverpool on a free transfer last summer.
He will eagerly anticipate playing against Cardiff, the city he left for Norwich at the age of 11, and the team he played for last season on loan after being refused a move to Tottenham.
It has been a long time since the Kop produced a roar as visceral and joyous as it did for Bellamy’s decisive 74th minute goal. After a sharp one-two with Glen Johnson, he fired a firm left-footed finish past the excellent Joe Hart.
Welsh Wizard | Bellamy capped a fine display by scoring the decisive goal
It made the score 2-2 on the night, enough for Liverpool to book their place in the final with a 3-2 win on aggregate. City twice took the lead, through Nigel de Jong and Edin Dzeko, but were pegged back by a Steven Gerrard penalty and then Bellamy. Who else?
Bellamy’s performance made a mockery of the much vaunted sabermetrics model of owners Fenway Sports Group, with the club’s transfer policy of spending big money on talented young players with the potential to improve not yet bearing fruit.
While the whole team contributed to the performance, it was two players in their 30s who cost nothing who made the difference on Wednesday night. Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, has taken a lot of flack for poor signings - with more than £100m spent since he returned to manage the club last January - but Bellamy’s comeback has proved an inspired decision.
He buzzed as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack, terrorising City defender Stefan Savic until the Montenegrin was substituted at half-time, never giving the defenders a moment to relax. It set the tone for a superb all-round performance in which the scoreline failed to reflect the hosts’ dominance.
But they made it to the final and it was no less than the Reds deserved for a high octane performance in which they overwhelmed the Premier League leaders with the intensity of their attacking play. Chance after chance went begging - mainly due to Hart’s heroics in the City goal - but you always felt this would be Liverpool’s night.
With the Kop almost sucking the ball towards the goal in the second half, Liverpool extended their run of unbeaten semi-finals at Anfield to 28 in the competition they have won seven times, more than any other club.
Liverpool is a club built on success. Try telling anyone who was at Anfield last night that this is the ‘Micky Mouse’ cup. You’ll Never Walk Alone was sung in the moments before the final whistle with all the passion of a fanbase yearning for success after five years without a trophy.
It also represents what is potentially the pivotal moment in the rejuvenation under Dalglish of Liverpool as a team and a club. In front of John W Henry and Tom Werner - principle owner and chairman respectively - the Reds produced a performance against a leading team that harked back to the glory days.
Dalglish was quick to blast his players for their lack of application in the 3-1 defeat at Bolton last Saturday, but he got just the response he asked for.
The Scot knows the value of winning silverware, of building - or rebuilding - that mentality at the club. Jose Mourinho always took the League Cup seriously for that reason; while Dalglish won the trophy four years running between 1981 and 1984. How poetic that he should have such a glorious chance to return silverware to the Reds’ trophy cabinet in the same competition.
They have not had an easy route, either. This was Liverpool’s first home game in a cup run that included impressive away wins at Stoke and Chelsea.
Progress has been frustratingly slow for the Merseysiders, but this is an irrefutable sign that the club is moving forward and not stagnating in the quagmire of mediocrity. Liverpool face an uphill battle to finish in the Champions League places this season but they should now feel confident in their ability to push for a top four finish.
With the likes of Bellamy, Gerrard and Luis Suarez in the side, they have every chance. All three are matchwinners.
All three will, barring injury, walk out of the tunnel at Wembley when Liverpool face Cardiff next month. They need to be wary that the job is not done, even if the most difficult hurdle has been overcome.
Bellamy has already torn one former club to shreds in this competition, and who would bet against him doing it again?
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