There were sighs all round as the starting line-up was revealed, with Gabby Agbonlahor having failed to recover from his hamstring injury in time for yesterday’s showcase at Wembley. In his absence, Sherwood threw Jack Grealish into the fray, which turned out to be a wise move as the local lad played the game of his life.
In the other camp, Rodgers gave in to sentiment and allowed Steven Gerrard to start the game at his “second home”.
Grealish appeared undaunted from the off, skipping past Can before being dragged down.
The Reds looked a little rocky but began to settle into the game quite quickly. Coutinho did well to find space on the left and cut back to Allen, whose strike in the fifth minute was wayward.
Calm and committed, Grealish made a promising run that was halted by the experienced Skrtel, which led to a corner for the Villans. Having done well to dodge Lovren, N’Zogbia’s drifting cross just escaped Benteke at the far post.
With eleven minutes played, it was the Villans who had the first real chance to score as N’Zogbia unleashed a powerful strike from twenty-five yards out that Mignolet managed to get a fingertip to and tip over the crossbar.
Vlaar showed his guile in outwitting Sterling, as, collectively, the Villans stood strong and repelled the Reds in general, and Sterling in particular, every time they entered claret and blue territory.
Having gone up for a header, Baker sustained an injury to what appeared to be his knee that led to him being replaced by Okore after twenty-four minutes, as Sherwood’s injury concerns grew.
Despite their dominance, the Villans struggled to create clear cut goal-scoring chances and they were punished for some dubious defending after thirty minutes.
Following a corner, Okore and Delph both failed to clear the ball inside their own area. Coutinho wasted no time in bursting into the penalty area, where he was gifted great through ball from Sterling before coolly curling the ball around Given, helped by a slight deflection off Okore.
The Reds’ pleasure was rather short-lived as the Villans, spurred on by the crowd and their manager, fought back and a fine move down the left allowed Grealish to release Delph, who squirmed past several Liverpool defenders, allowing the captain to cut back to Benteke, who dispatched the ball past Mignolet to level the score.
Four minutes later, Coutinho threatened again but his shot from twenty yards out was deflected for a corner.
The first half ended all square, with Delph proving himself a worthy bearer of the armband, having atoned admirably for his part in Coutinho’s goal and constantly driving the midfield forward.
The start of the second half saw Balotelli introduced, replacing the largely anonymous Markovic, and Sterling switched to the wing to make room for the much-maligned striker but that tactical change did little to reverse the Reds’ fortunes.
Four minutes into the second half, Gerrard unleashed the ball from twenty-five yards out but his shot was both high and wide.
With Benteke waiting on the edge of the area, Bacuna crossed from the right but the Belgian’s attempted half-volley was deflected and found its way into Mignolet’s arms.
Continuing to impress, Grealish’s clever reverse pass into the area was rewarded when Delph capitalised on Benteke’s hold up play to make a late dash into the box, jinked past Lovren and slid the ball past Mignolet from six yards out to give his team the lead. The West side of Wembley duly went wild.
On the hour mark, the Villans looked set to score a third when a galloping Grealish was in sight of goal, only to be denied by Lovren’s fine tackle. The ball reached Richardson, who somehow shot wide from a good position.
Five minutes late, Balotelli won a free-kick just outside the area but Gerrard’s effort went straight to the grateful Given.
Benteke then ignored N’Zogbia’s calls for the ball and decided to sail the ship alone but his touch was a shade too heavy, which allowed Moreno to intervene with a terrific tackle.
After seventy-four minutes, N’Zogbia was replaced by Sinclair.
Three minutes later, Allen left the field, replaced by Johnson.
A late challenge on Coutinho earned Delph a yellow card. Once again, Gerrard hit the ensuing free kick straight into Given’s arms, as the Liverpool legend FA fairy tale appeared to be at its end.
With eight minutes of normal time left on the clock, Grealish left the pitch to a deserved standing ovation and Cole replaced him.
Claret and blue nerves were jangling in the eighty-sixth minute as Gerrard came close. Luckily, Richardson was on the line to clear the Liverpool skipper’s dangerous header.
Two minutes later, with the Reds piling on the pressure, Villa fans’ nerves were in ribbons as Balotelli collected Gerrard’s raking pass and put the ball in the net before, wrongly, it seems, being ruled offside.
Lovren then wasted a great opportunity as he blazed the ball over the bar from forty yards out before Michael Oliver, mercifully, blew his whistle and the celebrations began.
The Villans now face the Gunners in the FA Cup final on May 30th at 5p.m.