Tim Sherwood's tactics wrecks Steven Gerrard's fairy tale ending
Liverpool 1 - Aton Villa 2
There was a late free-kick yesterday that promised one last great Steven Gerrard intervention in the history of English football - one last swish of his right boot to rescue the game, to break the hearts of the opposition and change the course of the FA Cup. When the Liverpool captain could only clip it harmlessly into the hands of Shay Given you could tell that the game was up.
Gerrard's 35th birthday famously coincides with the FA Cup final on May 30 but there will be no finale in the final, no further heroics - at Wembley at least. It is testament to the personal history of the man that the expectation was that, even in his veteran years, and coming back from a three-match suspension, he might do something monumental in this FA Cup semi-final.
As it was, time looked to have crept up on Gerrard as he found himself besieged by a brilliant Aston Villa performance and the likes of Fabian Delph and Jack Grealish in particular. It will not have helped that this was his first full game since March 16, aside from the 48 seconds against Manchester United, but it did not look like much fun out there for the Liverpool captain, and even less so for Brendan Rodgers.
Gerrard can bid farewell to a fine Liverpool career come May, but the club and the manager he leaves behind has more profound questions to answer.
Rodgers criticised his team's lack of energy and guile against an Aston Villa side who controlled the game, but he will also have to face up to the reality that he lost the battle of managerial minds.
Step forward, Tim Sherwood, a man whose "Tactics Tim" sobriquet during his first managerial spell last season at Tottenham was not conceived as a compliment. This time, however, Sherwood called it exactly right with a plan he explained afterwards of two playmakers in Grealish and Charles N'Zogbia who passed the ball through Liverpool to secure a place in the FA Cup final against Arsenal.
From Christian Benteke there was another powerful demonstration of the centre-forward's art and it was the Belgian who scored the equaliser six minutes after Philippe Coutinho had given Liverpool an improbable lead. The best player on the pitch, Delph, scored what turned out to be the winner on 54 minutes.
Rodgers changed the formation from three in defence to a more orthodox four early in the game and said afterwards it was a switch he had made before. He brought Mario Balotelli on at half-time for the woeful Lazar Markovic but, aside from one offside decision that went against the striker, he looked yet again that he would be the last man to rescue Liverpool from their predicament.
Rodgers' team might yet push Manchester City for the final Champions League place although that looks less likely after the latter beat West Ham. Otherwise, this semi-final was an unwelcome reminder of the shortcomings that plagued Liverpool in the early part of their season. Daniel Sturridge was injured once again, and without him Liverpool lacked any kind of bite in attack.
Even with a Villa defence that lost yet another member to injury early on, Nathan Baker this time, there was precious little threat from Liverpool for whom Raheem Sterling was quiet. Gerrard's header was cleared off the line by Kieran Richardson near the end but otherwise you were struck by how comfortable Villa made it look.
They will be underdogs again when they play Arsenal but at least Villa have some reason to hope after what once threatened to be the most moribund of seasons under Paul Lambert.
They have won the FA Cup seven times in their history but only twice in the last 100 years and 1957 was the last time. Since that monumental 1982 European Cup triumph they have won just two League Cups, in 1994 and 1996. A trophy has been a long time coming.
The Liverpool goal came in a window of pressure for Rodgers' team around the half-hour mark. Coutinho started the move which neither Jonas Okore, on for Baker, nor Delph cleared. The ball came back from Joe Allen to Sterling to Coutinho who darted into the Villa box and slipped the ball past Given.
Villa's equaliser began with a throw-in on the left wing which Delph carried forward and played to Grealish inside him. From then it went swiftly back to the overlapping Delph who crossed for Benteke to guide the ball past Simon Mignolet.
Delph's winner was another beauty, with Benteke and then Grealish working the ball through Liverpool before the England midfielder doubled back past Dejan Lovren and slipped the ball past Mignolet.
A boyhood Arsenal fan, Sherwood now faces the club at Wembley with the possibility of a trophy, a most improbable outcome for Villa given the depths they have plumbed at times this season. It was Liverpool who began in August with such high hopes but they looked a long way distant this afternoon.
Liverpool: Mignolet, Can, Skrtel, Lovren, Markovic (Balotelli 45), Henderson, Allen (Johnson 78), Moreno (Lambert 91), Gerrard, Coutinho, Sterling. Substitutes: Jones, Touré, Manquillo, Borini. Goal: Coutinho (30).
Aston Villa: Given, Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker (Okore 26), Richardson, Cleverley, Westwood, Delph, N'Zogbia (Sinclair 75), Benteke, Grealish (Cole 84). Substitutes: Guzan, Weimann, Gil, Lowton. Booked: Delph. Goals: Benteke 36, Delph 54.
Man of match: Jack Grealish.
Referee: Michael Oliver (Northumberland).