Liverpool seek cup final reward for work in progress
LONDON, May 10: FA Cup finalists Liverpool know better than most teams that success in knockout competitions can prove illusory.
Five seasons ago they won the UEFA Cup, the FA Cu+p, the League Cup and the European Super Cup in the space of one year.
Last season they raised eyebrows across Europe by winning the Champions League.
They failed, however, to turn those triumphs into sustained challenges for the title the Anfield club regards as the real meter of success, the Premier League.
The last of Liverpool's record 18 league titles came 16 years ago and, as a result, Rafael Benitez and his team will not be fooled should they win as expected against West Ham on Saturday.
Win or lose, this has already been a season of significant progress for Benitez's maturing team who believe they can put up a serious fight for Chelsea's Premier League crown next season after establishing themselves in the top three.
''I think we can safely say now...that our league campaign this season has been one of vast improvement,'' Gerrard told Liverpool's website last week.
''Our points total is really good. We've more than halved the gap between ourselves and Chelsea, and if we keep moving forward like we have been then we'll be involved in the title race next season, definitely.'' Saturday's day out in Wales, therefore, is reward for a work in progress.
Liverpool earned 82 points this season in finishing third, compared to 58 points last season when they struggled to fifth place. It is their highest Premier League points tally.
They also won 50 per cent more league matches -- 25 compared to 17 -- doubled their away wins tally to 10 and conceded only 25 goals, compared to 41 in 2004-05.
Benitez has led Liverpool out in a showpiece English cup final before, in the 2003 League Cup final when they lost 3-2 to Chelsea after extra time. But the FA Cup, the world's oldest knockout soccer competition, is a step up in prestige terms.
''The FA Cup final will be one of the most important games I've ever played,'' said Spanish goalkeeper Jose Reina.
''People have said to me how winning the FA Cup in England is celebrated just like a Premiership title.
''I've also been told all about the stadium and the crowd numbers, and how our supporters will be. If we can win it, we can say we've had a great season.''