Belfast Telegraph

FA Cup: Aston Villa 2 - 1 Liverpool: Villa to face Arsenal in final

By Sam Wallace

And so there will be no grand finale in the FA Cup final next month for Steven Gerrard, rather he will spend his 35th birthday on 30 May somewhere other than Wembley Stadium looking back on a fine Liverpool career rather than enjoying what might have been last tilt at glory.

The Liverpool captain will know that his team did not deserve to win this FA Cup semi-final, an occasion upon which Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa took another giant step forward in their renaissance under their new manager. They outplayed Liverpool from start to finish, came from a goal behind they were unfortunate to concede and are worthy of their place in the final against Arsenal.

Gerrard would recognise that, when he has time to reflect, that in Fabian Delph and Jack Grealish, Villa had two outstanding midfielders who bossed the game for long periods. Grealish is a junior international for the Republic of Ireland but yet to declare his senior allegiances and the watching Roy Hodgson will note that this could be one whom he cannot allow to slip away.

In Christian Benteke, Villa had the attacking force that Liverpool badly lacked without the injured Daniel Sturridge, and Rodgers changed and changed again as he searched for something that would put Villa on the back foot. He ended the game with Mario Balotelli on the pitch as the substitute but for what seemed like the hundredth time the Italian did not look like the answer for Liverpool.

Liverpool’s best chances of the desperate later stages were a tame Gerrard free-kick, easily saved by Shay Given, and a header from the Liverpool captain cleared off the line by Kieran Richardson. They went quietly in the end and their captain will leave at the end of the season without the valedictory trophy but then he knows better than most that the happy ending is never guaranteed in this game.

For Villa, there is the promise of a beautiful end to what was once promising to be the most moribund of seasons under Paul Lambert and, while they will be the underdogs once again by a distance against Arsenal, Sherwood has taken them a long way. They have not been in an FA Cup final for 15 years, they last won it in 1957 and all concerned will be happy just to have the joy back in the club

It was Benteke who scored the equaliser after Philippe Coutinho’s fine opening goal. The winner came from the boot of Delph, on balance the best player in the game and a truly emerging force in the English game.

It was a first half largely dominated by Villa and interrupted by the kind of run and finish from Coutinho that can take your breath away. Playing as they were, with a formation that had be overhauled from 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 by Rodgers, Liverpool were fortunate to go in at half-time level. If there was a criticism of Villa it was that they failed to create many chances of note.

Sherwood’s side were magnificent at times in the first half, controlling possession and moving the ball quickly to Benteke whenever possible. In midfield, Grealish glided with the ball at his feet and demanded it of team-mates at all times. This young man does things in his own sweet time despite not being over-blessed with pace or strength, and it can be a joy to watch.

Villa lost Nathan Baker to injury on 26 minutes with Sherwood’s players having worked the best chance for Charles N’Zogbia whose shot was tipped over by Simon Mignolet. Alongside Grealish was the excellent Delph who pounded up and down and back and forth all over the midfield, but however hectic, was capable of picking a pass.

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 Raheem Sterling to Coutinho who darted into the Villa box and slipped the ball past Given. There looked like a slight deflection on his shot to deceive the goalkeeper.

By then, Liverpool had switched to four at the back with Emre Can at right-back and Gerrard pushed forward. Later the Liverpool captain would be moved back into the deepest holding midfield position in the second half. Villa’s equaliser began with a throw-in on the left wing which Delph carried forward and played to Grealish inside. From then it went swiftly back to the overlapping Delph who crossed first time for Benteke to guide the ball past Mignolet.

In response, Rodgers moved his team around with Gerrard, a marginalised figure in the first half, moved back to sit in front of the defence with Balotelli, who was on for the anonymous Lazar Markovic. As time ticked down on Liverpool, the paucity of Rodgers’ options was clear, and so too his lack of trust in them. Rickie Lambert came on in the 90th minute.

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. The creativity in Villa’s midfield had been there to see all afternoon but sometimes teams can fail to make it pay. Not on this occasion. As for Liverpool, the day just seemed to pass them by.

Source: The Independent

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