Heroic Reds win best ever Cup final

13 May 2006

The 2006 FA Cup final will be remembered in Anfield folklore as the 'Gerrard final' as captain fantastic Steven Gerrard rescued Liverpool with a stunning last minute equaliser to break West Ham's hearts and force extra-time.

The final was also a fairytale ending to a fantastic debut season from goalkeeper Pepe Reina who saved three penalties in the shoot-out to give Liverpool their seventh FA Cup.

Things had looked bleak for the Reds when West Ham were 2-0 up after 28 minutes but you never write off Liverpool in finals and that Istanbul fighting spirit was seen once again as Gerrard began to influence his side. He set up Djibril Cisse for a fantastic goal to make it 2-1 and then scored a wonderful strike himself to make it 2-2 after 54 minutes.

However, the Hammers regained the initiative when Paul Konchesky's cross come shot found its way past Reina into the net. Gerrard wasn't to be denied his chance of lifting more silverware for his boyhood club though and just as the stadium announcer in the Millennium Stadium announced how much injury time was to be played, the Reds midfield powerhouse hit a venomous shot from 35-yards out that nestled into the bottom corner of the net to make it 3-3.

Ironically there were more than a few similarities between Istanbul 2005 and Cardiff 2006. Liverpool were in red and West Ham, just as AC Milan wore a year earlier, were in white. The final score after extra-time was 3-3 and just before penalties Reina emulated Jerzy Dudek with a stunning save to deny Hammers skipper Nigel Reo-Coker. It wasn't quite as sensational a moment as Dudek's from Schevchenko but it was a vital one to say the least.

Reina then imitated Dudek in the penalty shoot-out and Didi Hamann, Gerrard and John Arne Riise all scored from the spot to give the Reds the cup. It sealed another truly amazing roller-coaster ride of a recovery and gave Rafael Benitez another trophy.

The run to Cardiff was also as eventful with some fantastic Liverpool performances and thrilling matches. The 3rd round tie at Luton was unbelievable with Liverpool fighting their way back from 3-1 down to win 5-3 and Xabi Alonso scored a sensational goal from inside his own half after a break from a Luton corner. After beating Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth in a tricky tie at Fratton Park a Peter Crouch goal saw off Manchester United at Anfield. It was at this point that Reds fans sensed another trip to Cardiff could be on the cards.

The quarter-final was a magnificent seven for the Reds as relegation threatened Birmingham City were trounced 7-0 at St Andrews. Then, just like the road to Istanbul Chelsea lay in wait in the semi-final which was at Old Trafford. Liverpool were magnificent and great goals from  Riise and Luis Garcia (again) ensured the Reds a ticket to their second home at the Millennium Stadium. The rest as they say is history.

Rafael Benitez (LFC manager 2004 – present): "I must give credit to my players as after a 62 game season a lot of them had cramp but they kept going until the end, never gave up and have done a fantastic job.

"Steven Gerrard scored two fantastic goals and you know the quality he has and I give him credit but for me it was the success of the team. Steven would say that himself and the energy levels the players showed was amazing. It was a fantastic final. 

"Our supporters were fantastic as always and they kept us going. I was a little bit disappointed with the mistakes we made but we changed things. Cisse got a goal just before half-time which was important then I put Kromkamp on down the right side because Konchesky had cramp. We needed to control the midfield more and I put Didi Hamann on and he kept the ball and passed it for us."

Benitez also praised his goalkeeper Pepe Reina for his heroics in the shoot-out when he made three saves.

"Pepe is famous back in Spain for saving penalties so we had confidence in him and he did his job for us," added Benitez.

Steven Gerrard (LFC player 1998 – present): "We felt our best chance was penalties because we had no energy left. We always knew if it went to penalties we had a really good chance, we feel we've got the better goalkeeper on the day. Pepe made a great save in the last minute and he deserves to be the hero.

"It's very special, the supporters are fantastic and West Ham were brilliant today, but we had the never say die attitude. It's a dream for me to score two, and a penalty, and to be able to celebrate with all these magnificent fans. We've got a great team spirit - It doesn't matter how many goals we go down, we'll keep fighting till the end."

Pepe Reina (LFC player 2005 – present): "I think really that I didn't deserve it because my game today wasn't the best - it was a difficult day for me. But in the lottery of the penalties this time I was lucky."

John Arne Riise (LFC player 2001 – 2008): "I never thought we'd lost the game, not even when there was only five minutes left and not even when we went into injury time. When you have the best player in the world in your side then you know that anything is possible. I was just praying for somebody to do something special and Stevie came up trumps again. When the ball hit the net I felt like running over to him to give him a big kiss but then I decided against it! 

"Gerrard is the best for me. He is still young, he's got everything in his game and he can do whatever he wants in football. It was just brilliant to win the final. The odds were against us at one stage but there's a great belief in this team now and we never believe we are beaten.

"I asked the manager to let me take the fourth penalty given what happened in Istanbul last year. That hurt me. I was carrying an injury at the time which meant that I couldn't blast the penalty there which I'd normally do. I had to place it and their keeper (Dida) saved it. That was a nightmare, even though we won the cup, it still left me demoralised but I could use the power now.

"I know my penalty here wasn't a great penalty, but a goal's a goal. I blasted it down the middle and it flew in, and as soon as it hit the back of the net, I burst into tears. They were stinging my eyes. It was just so emotional after what happened last season. This was closure, a chance for me to get revenge and put things right."

Alan Pardew (West Ham manager): "The players have been absolutely magnificent and we are proud of the way we played in making it a great game. It felt like a defeat when the third goal went in but we rallied and had the biggest chance of extra-time.

"We had to dig in, this was a top team we were playing, but I really felt we were going to win it. Only a 35-yard smasher from Gerrard was going to change that."

Rafael Benitez: "We do like to make things difficult for ourselves in finals and maybe it's not the best for my heart! People have said to me it was like Istanbul but I say 'no' because then we were 3-0 down at half-time. Cisse scored a goal just before half-time to make it 2-1 and I had confidence we could come back and win. Credit to the players who just kept on going until the end and we never gave up."

David Moores (LFC Chairman): "Steven Gerrard is our talisman - I mean you just can't replace him. Thank goodness everything was sorted out last year! Everything's settled down now and I know he will be with us for life. He's an unbelievable player and I wouldn't swap him for anyone. He has got everything and never ceases to amaze. He has been magnificent, different class."

Steven Gerrard: "Just before my second goal I had taken a free-kick and it nearly went out of the stadium, my legs were so weary, so I don't quite know where I got the energy from.

"I must admit I was absolutely delighted to hit the next shot like that. I didn't mean to put it exactly there but knew I had to get good contact to make sure it would hit the target and I caught it really sweetly. It was a great moment when it went in, and I don't know how I did it. I just concentrated on giving everything to the shot.

"I didn't hear the stadium announcer say how much extra was being added, but I knew there wasn't long left and it was really hard - I was all over the place. In fact, in extra time I just didn't want the ball. I just kept looking at the clock and wanting it to run out. I had absolutely nothing left."