A superb Aston Villa came from behind to stun Liverpool and claim their place in the FA Cup final after a richly deserved 2-1 victory at Wembley Stadium.
Despite making the better start, Villa went behind to Philippe Coutinho’s deflected effort on the half-hour mark. But their ferocious tempo proved too much for a Liverpool team that chopped and changed personnel and formations throughout, but until the dying embers failed to gain superiority. After Christian Benteke quickly brought them level, Fabian Delph applied the finishing touch to another delightfully flowing attack in the second half to put Villa on course for their first final in 15 years and a meeting with Arsenal next month.
It was a thrilling spectacle at the iconic arena, with much of that down to Villa’s proactive approach from the off. Despite having bounced back from costly Premier League defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal with the aid of a switch to a 4-3-3 formation, Brendan Rodgers reverted to his previous three-man backline and box midfield. But Villa, like opponents before them, had a strategy to drastically limit its effectiveness. Pushing three men high onto Liverpool’s defenders, the Rodgers' side had no way of playing out of the back and no avenue to get their passing game going.
Villa were unfortunate to lose Nathan Baker, only in the team because of an injury to Ciaran Clark, only 25 minutes in. And the necessitated change proved crucial in them falling behind. The man brought on, Jores Okore, was sluggish in the extreme as he initially failed to clear and then saw Coutinho’s shot, which was heading wide, find the corner of the net off his knee.
Impressively, especially given their still active battle against relegation from the Premier League, Villa were undeterred. The energy of Delph, creator for the first goal and scorer of the second, embodied their approach. And his dynamism stood in sharp contrast to his opponent in the Liverpool midfield Steven Gerrard.
Back from a suspension, Rodgers had proclaimed in the buildup to the game that his captain was “ready” for the contest and the challenge of ensuring a chance for a fairytale farewell in the FA Cup final on his 35th birthday. But his aging legs and the just 28 minutes of first-team action he has had in more than two months was in full evidence. Gerrard was a total passenger in an area where Liverpool needed to match the intensity of their opponents. Repeatedly Delph and the sublime 19-year-old Jack Grealish streamed forward unchecked to create havoc.
Only in the closing minutes did Liverpool assert any authority over the contest. But Gerrard, the man who was the savior for Liverpool in the 2006 FA Cup final, could not come up with the spectacular this time around. His free-kick that sailed safely into Shay Given’s hands summed up his and Liverpool's day. Yet, even more of a concern for Liverpool, this was not only a case of one man's limitations being shown up.
As in the defeats that may well have cost them a place in the Champions League next season, Liverpool again failed to come anywhere near their best in a crucial game. After so much progress last season, Liverpool and Rodgers now face the very real prospect of finishing this campaign empty handed and with much to ponder.
But for all Liverpool’s failings, this was unquestionably a performance to savor for Aston Villa. Tim Sherwood has, quite understandably, earned much derision for his repeatedly preposterous utterings and sideline antics as well as some often naïve tactical selections. But, relatively reserved in his technical area throughout, Sherwood deserves much credit for getting his tactics spot on.
Liverpool, in contrast, changed repeatedly, but never found an answer to their problems. They had scored shortly after a switch to a 4-4-1-1 system after what was n a rare spell of pressure for them in the game. Okore failed to deal with Jordan Henderson’s cut back, and Coutinho surged onto Raheem Sterling’s pass on the edge of the box to put Liverpool in front. But the negatives of the formation shift were exposed for Villa to equalize just six minutes later.
The move to a back four meant Emre Can going to right-back. And while the German has impressed in various positions this season, he was found wanting for Villa’s opening goal. Caught upfield, Delph found Grealish and then continued his storming run into the box, from where he played a perfectly weighted pass back for Benteke to finish first-time beyond the despairing dive of Simon Mignolet.
With Can’s struggles in an unfamiliar position and Gerrard having been anonymous in a more advanced role, there appeared a strong case for Rodgers to bring on one of the two natural right-backs on the bench and move Can into his more natural midfield role in place of Liverpool’s skipper. Instead Mario Balotelli was the man introduced for Lazar Markovic to give Liverpool a more orthodox center-forward presence, with Coutinho and Sterling supporting him from either flank. But that meant Gerrard going into the deep quarterback role in which he has time and again been exposed for his lack of mobility and defensive awareness.
What was to follow was all too predictable. Nine minutes into the second half, Delph was left completely unchecked as he stormed into the Liverpool box, while Grealish was also allowed to find space to produce the through ball for the England midfielder. Once in the box, Delph nervelessly and all too simply checked back inside the leaden-footed Dejan Lovren and struck the shot to ensure Villa a return to Wembley at on the final day of May.
Whether sentiment or lack of strength in his convictions to take off a club legend in such a big match. Rodgers’ decision to keep faith with Gerrard contributed hugely to his undoing. But, while Gerrard will leave for LA Galaxy in the summer, Rodgers’ failure to lift his players for the big games and the still unresolved issues with his defense will remain major problems for the undeniably bright coach to solve. This was a day that belonged to Villa and Sherwood.