Judgement day for Liverpool
This is not just about a victory on the day. This is about a verdict on the entire year. For Liverpool, the FA Cup final against Chelsea determines how their campaign will be remembered, whether the first question in their summer analysis is 'what went right?' or 'what went wrong?' It determines if the mood is one of celebration or of recrimination. Saturday is judgment day.
"People will judge us," Steven Gerrard said, presenting both sides of the argument. Victory gives him the final word in any discussion. "People will say 'yeah, but you haven't done well in the league' and we will say, 'yeah, but we have won two cups'." The Carling Cup was secured in February and Jamie Carragher insisted: "At the end of your career you want trophies to look back on. We've got one and if we win two, I think it's a great season."
There is a consistency to Carragher's case; his favourite season was the treble year of 2000-01, rather than 2004-05, which produced their improbable, incredible Champions League triumph, or 2008-09, when 86 points and some superlative football were not enough to make them champions.
Not for the first time, captain and vice-captain were singing from the same hymn sheet. "Some of the biggest experiences myself and Jamie have had over the years have been winning cups: the European Cup, the FA Cup, the Carling Cup," Gerrard added. "Those are the days that you look back on with fond memories."
He was sat in Anfield's Trophy Room, surrounded by gleaming reminders of his and Carragher's past deeds; of achievements in Kenny Dalglish's playing and managerial career; of major honours dating back to the 1901 First Division title. It is an enviable accumulation of silverware and, at a club where pre-eminence is prioritised, Dalglish said: "There is a satisfaction from winning a trophy you don't get from finishing in the top four."
The top four will elude them, but Liverpool's top form has come in the knockout competitions. They are unbeaten in 12 games in cup competitions, including two apiece against Manchester City and Stoke City, and one each with Chelsea, Everton and Manchester United. Neither path to Wembley has been simple; both have been navigated confidently. "Getting to the FA Cup final should never be underestimated in any way," Dalglish added. "It is a great reward. We think we deserve to be there."
When Liverpool last won the FA Cup (2006's penalty shootout triumph over West Ham) it was the Gerrard final. These are the stages on which the Istanbul immortal tends to excel. The Liverpudlian is alone in scoring in the finals of the Champions League, UEFA Cup, FA Cup and Carling Cup, helping his hometown club win each. An illustrious place in history is guaranteed, but with one unwelcome distinction: he is the finest English footballer of the Premier League era never to win the title.
If the table is the ultimate arbiter, he has rarely been further away. Only in 2005, when Chelsea were champions and Champions League winners Liverpool finished 37 points behind them, has there been a bigger gulf than the 34 points separating the Merseysiders from Manchester's twin representatives at the division's summit.
"If we can look back and say we won two cups we will be happy but we still need to address the problem of our league position," Gerrard accepted. "We are all aware that we have underachieved in the league. The squad of players we have got is better than where we are."
It was a typically honest remark. Rarely one to sugar-coat failure or to needlessly hype colleagues, the 31-year-old midfielder believes Liverpool's pool of players is comparable with Chelsea's Champions League finalists.
"I don't think there's much between the teams," he insisted. "I think you have got two good sides. It's a 50-50 game. It will boil down to the small details on the day." Details, whether big or small, seem to be a speciality of Roberto Di Matteo in the Italian's brief reign at Stamford Bridge. "At the moment he seems to get everything right," added Carragher.
Jose Mourinho's Chelsea ambition floundered on the Scouse rock in the Liverpool defence. Finals may be the occasions he treasures but Carragher arguably peaked at the penultimate stage. In both 2005 and 2007, he was Liverpool's sweat-soaked saviour, his indomitability denying the Blues a place in the Champions League final.
As a connoisseur of the rearguard action, therefore, he looked on with admiration as Di Matteo's men held out against the odds in the Camp Nou. "We watched the performance in Barcelona and you can only take your hat off to them," he said. "It's something they will always remember."
Memories are made by such heroics. But, he argued, success is measured in silverware. Teams are analysed on the basis of what they win, not what they almost achieved. And so, for Liverpool, judgment day beckons.