Kevin McCarra at the Millennium Stadium
A great footballer can bring out the best in the opposition as well as his own team. When the losing manager Alan Pardew could have been speechless with regret he was scrupulous in his praise of Steven Gerrard. With others extolling the Liverpool captain's 90th-minute equaliser, he also preached the excellence of the midfielder's technique when smashing home a bouncing ball for the first of his goals.
There are very few players who strike a shot with such pristine power. The 2006 FA Cup has quivered with the drama he creates, from the sweeping drive with which he opened the scoring at Luton in the third round to the penalty he smacked past Shaka Hislop in Saturday's shootout.
So long as the value of Liverpool's forwards is dubious the health of the club will depend on that of Gerrard. Just before that leveller against West Ham he had begun to be affected by cramp and the side's prospects were therefore on the verge of seizing up.
He is the only plausible explanation for West Ham's defeat, considering that they had been the better team. Pardew surely wishes he had assigned a marker to Gerrard in those closing moments of normal time because no other Liverpool player merited attention by then. The public will simply wonder if the midfielder can be so galvanic next month.
He missed the 2002 World Cup through injury and was mentally absent from Euro 2004 while distracted by overtures from Chelsea, but those constraints will not apply in Germany. People must fear instead that England will fail to make the most of him since Sven- Goran Eriksson's policy differs from that of Rafael Benítez's.
It seems Gerrard will be paired with Frank Lampard in central midfield at the World Cup, sharing the defensive duties between them but not temperamentally suited to discharging them well. Liverpool seldom employ their captain in that way.
"He has scored 23 goals this season," said Benítez. "We know that we need to leave him to go forward and play his own game. That is the reason we have Xabi Alonso and Momo Sissoko." There can be no such latitude for Gerrard with his country unless a specialist holding player is introduced.
On Saturday Gerrard had to be on the loose if there was to be any chance of Liverpool escaping defeat. Benítez was alarmed by the weariness of his team. By the shoot-out Djibril Cissé would barely have been capable of a run-up but the manager joked that no one else with cramp could be excused because he himself might then have had to take a penalty. The supposedly dramatic conclusion was an anticlimax, with West Ham hitting despondent efforts from the spot that, with the exception of Teddy Sheringham's firm strike, were saved by Pepe Reina. Pardew's men approached those penalties as footballers queuing to pay the price for letting 2-0 and 3-2 leads slip.
West Ham had been superb in many respects and Yossi Benayoun's display was astonishing. He never seemed to stop running over the course of the two hours and the sprightliness of thought was inextinguishable as well. This was an epic final partly because neither defence was resilient. The game twinkled with the glint of glass jaws.
Alonso, distracted by his injury, had a bad day and passed to Benayoun in the 21st minute. Dean Ashton, fit enough to last an hour, then released Lionel Scaloni and Jamie Carragher could not avoid turning the cut-back into his own net. Seven minutes later Matthew Etherington fired a shot that Reina spilled. Ashton, who had started the move, slipped the loose ball home.
Despite that shock Liverpool responded with ominous alacrity. A Peter Crouch goal had already been chalked off with a marginal offside decision before Gerrard, after 32 minutes, piloted a long ball between an unconvincing Anton Ferdinand and Scaloni so that Cissé, who has made the France World Cup squad, could score with a sleek volley.
West Ham's irrepressibility kept on being underrated and they would have lengthened their lead once more had Reina not stopped Marlon Harewood and then Benayoun from polishing off an Etherington cross in the 46th minute. Pardew's side was not even discouraged when Gerrard thrashed a finish past Hislop from a Crouch knock-down.
There was a great reservoir of confidence to be drained from an entertaining Upton Park team. Paul Konchesky was lucky to score with a mis-hit cross in the 64th minute but the readiness of the left-back to get into advanced positions indicated West Ham's exuberance. Reina was badly at fault then but the fact that his hairline has made a run for it causes people to forget that he is only 23 and, in goalkeeping chronology, a relative youngster.
With the introduction of Dietmar Hamann Liverpool at last got a measure of control of a midfield that, to Benítez's relief, stopped his leg-weary players from having to hare back so often to retrieve the ball. Nonetheless it did look as if the afternoon would be remembered for Reina's errors until a clearing header dropped to Gerrard in the 90th minute.
Now it is the midfielder's exquisite 30-yarder that will be immortal, hanging in the FA Cup's hall of fame forever beside images such as Jim Montgomery's save for Sunderland from Leeds United's Peter Lorimer in the 1973 final or Ricky Villa's second goal in Spurs' replay with Manchester City eight years later.
And yet Gerrard's majestic drive would have been meaningless had Reina not tipped the ball on to the post after Nigel Reo-Coker glanced a Benayoun free-kick in the 119th minute. That is the glory of this final. It was endlessly absorbing, so open to discussion that it will never really be over in the minds of all those who watched and wondered.
Shaka Hislop, Anton Ferdinand, Danny Gabbidon, Paul Konchesky, Yossi Benayoun, Matthew Etherington (Teddy Sheringham), Carl Fletcher (Christian Dailly), Nigel Reo-Coker, Lionel Scaloni, Dean Ashton (Bobby Zamora), Marlon Harewood
Copyright - The Guardian