Liverpool are not the footballing heavyweight they once were. In the aftermath of the players' Carling Cup elation, Sunday's Wembley final provided an opportunity for celebration after the Reds ended a six-year wait for a major trophy, but also delivered a sobering reminder of the club's current predicament.
Kenny Dalglish's side edged past their Championship opponents only after a penalty shoot-out, with the tie tentatively poised at 2-2 after extra-time - making hard work of a game that should have ended with a much more convincing scoreline against overwhelming underdogs.
In truth, the match epitomised the story of Liverpool's season so far. The Premier League side dominated possession, but lacked any real cutting edge in the final third for much of the encounter. Their equalising goal came courtesy of Martin Skrtel after Cardiff failed to clear their lines from a Stewart Downing corner midway through the second half.
After edging ahead in extra-time through substitute Dirk Kuyt, the Reds were helpless to prevent Ben Turner from converting from close-range as the Bluebirds threw everything but the proverbial kitchen sink in a bid to get back into the game - just rewards for the spirit and determination shown by Malky Mackay’s side on the day.
By the time referee Mark Clattenburg brought an end to proceedings, taking the tie to a decisive penalty shoot-out, it's fair to say that the majority of neutral fans were willing the side from south Wales on to victory - a reward for making the showcase final such an encapsulating, and surprisingly competitive fixture, that will be remembered for many years to come.
But, despite missing two of their first five penalties, it was Liverpool who prevailed, after Anthony Gerrard - cousin of Reds captain Steven - side-footed wide, ending Cardiff's cup dreams, and sending the trophy back to Merseyside.
The subsequent tone of Liverpool's victory perhaps says more about the club's current standing within English football's elite, and more specifically their recent fall from grace - it was a ringing endorsement of a team who still have the potential to be big, if not quite the personnel at present.
Jamie Carragher, the Reds' vice-captain who seems to have an increasingly peripheral role within Dalglish's new-look side, admitted it is nice to think there is now the fallback of Europa League football but stressed that Liverpool's fight for the top four is not over.
The 34 year-old defender, playing in his fourth League Cup final when he was introduced as a second-half substitute to replace the injured Daniel Agger, wants Liverpool to find the consistency to qualify for Europe on a regular basis - and by that, he does not mean the second-tier competition.
"I think we are bigger than that," said the centre-back. "We should be looking to get into Europe every year through our league position rather than through winning the Carling Cup.
"Yes, it is nice to have it in the bag but we are bigger and better than that. The next step is trying to get back into the Champions League.
"We know it is going to be a difficult task and obviously we have got a big game coming up against Arsenal this weekend. But getting back into the Champions League has got to be the next step for this club.
"Europe is part of our heritage and we need to be involved again."
If Liverpool are serious about even attempting to move back into the higher echelons of the Premier League and then Europe's elite, the club, manager, players and fans must recognise Sunday as a potential stepping stone, nothing more, nothing less.
That said, the opportunity to parade another trophy for the likes of Carragher and Gerrard, who are entering the twilight of their respective careers - it's an honour their efforts over the past few years duly deserve.
"We're coming to the latter stages of our career, myself and Stevie, and because we have gone so long without winning anything you don't want to finish your career going seven or eight years without," Carragher added.
"It was a relief for both of us to get a trophy, for ourselves and the club. It maybe takes the pressure off now for the next year or two and we can relax and go on to try to win more trophies, hopefully bigger trophies."
In the cold light of day, what Liverpool have achieved is qualification for Europe in February, but it is another competition beneath the elite, not where the club ultimately aspires to be.
Without wishing to belittle the Carling Cup, or further damage the lesser reputation it already holds, their latest success can only ever be part of a potential story, a glorified footnote in Liverpool’s illustrious history.
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