When Liverpool last appeared in Cardiff, a three-foot high, framed portrait of Rafael Benitez led supporters on a procession through the crowded streets of the Welsh capital that only came to a halt when a banner containing 11 identical profiles of Jamie Carragher was unfurled high above the throng. For a moment the prelude to the 2005 Carling Cup final took on a religious fervour as the image of the Spaniard was hoisted alongside the "Team of Carraghers", in the words of the Kop anthem, and the crowd paid homage to two of Anfield's dominant characters. Idolatry aside, the pair have much more in common than their backgrounds, accents and reputations would suggest.
Should Liverpool triumph in this afternoon's FA Cup final then Carragher, with socks rolled down and shin-guards discarded at the end of the match, will quickly locate his family and friends inside the Millennium Stadium and lead the celebrations in front of his kin. At the same time, Benitez will locate a player who could have cost Liverpool the game and puncture the jubilation by deliberately detailing his mistake. "The manager is very critical, not one for praising people," Carragher reveals. "A classic example was against Juventus in the Champions'
League last season. We had just kept a clean sheet in Turin against some of the best players in the world and I was feeling pretty pleased with myself when he came straight over and started pointing out where I had gone wrong. I had missed something behind me in the last minute apparently. He does it all the time, he done it after we beat Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, but there's nothing wrong with it. He's just a perfectionist."
And so, now, is Carragher, who continues to revel in the responsibility afforded by Benitez's decision to establish the 28- year-old as his first choice centre-half upon his arrival at Anfield in July 2004. "There was no pep talk, he just put me there. Maybe I could have been putting these performances in three or four years ago if I hadn't been switched to fullback," he said. The failure to set a new club record of 35 clean sheets this season, a feat denied by Ognjen Koroman's late consolation for Portsmouth last weekend, has therefore been taken as a personal insult. "I am depressed about the fact we can only equal the record now in Cardiff," admits Carragher. "It has been on my mind since Christmas and it did my head in to concede that goal. I was gutted, because we would have had the chance to set a new record in the final."
The reigning European champions, for five more days, maybe favourites to land another major trophy but the shared philosophy of their manager and abrasive central defender will prevent complacency creeping into their approach in Cardiff. "Our manager has a great saying," reveals Carragher. "He always tells us: 'If you think you are better than them, make sure you beat them first, then say it afterwards.'"
Carragher cites two warnings from recent …