Philippe Coutinho kept Liverpool’s season alive with the only goal to finally see off Blackburn Rovers and book an FA Cup semifinal with Aston Villa at Wembley Stadium. After 160 minutes without a goal in a quarterfinal tie that began a month ago, Coutinho broke the deadlock with 20 minutes remaining at Ewood Park with a fine finish low into the corner of the net. After a chastening 4-1 defeat to Arsenal that all but ended Liverpool’s Champions League hopes on Saturday, this was a vital win to prevent their season petering out in hugely disappointing fashion.
The first match between these sides had proved the start of Liverpool’s decline in form after their midseason resurgence. And, while manager Brendan Rodgers insisted in the buildup to the replay that his 3-4-2-1 formation that had instigated that revival had not been worked out, he switched from it on this night, going back to a 4-3-3. Perhaps, though, that was in part down to suspensions ruling out defenders Martin Skrtel and Emre Can.
And the change didn’t exactly prove a catalyst for Liverpool to rediscover their vibrant best. A Blackburn side, themselves missing a host of players through injury and ineligibility, again gave a strong account of themselves and could easily have gone in front. But it was Liverpool’s greater quality that eventually told. Having been frustrated for so long, Coutinho, the player most likely to make something happen throughout, played a clever one-two with Jordan Henderson to catch out Blackburn’s backline before finishing cleanly across the body of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood.
Still there could have been more problems for Liverpool. With almost the final kick of the game, Eastwood, up for a corner, had a chance to force extra time, but shot straight at the grateful Simon Mignolet.
Rodgers insisted that the prospect of lifting a first trophy of his reign at the end of May meant there was still ample chance for Liverpool to make this season a successful one. And, after what was a vital win, they remain just on course for that. If Liverpool can now get past Aston Villa later this month, they will get the chance to give their departing captain Steven Gerrard a birthday sendoff at Wembley on May 30.
Again absent through suspension, Gerrard missed an opening half at Ewood Park was a continuation of what transpired in the first match between the sides a month ago. Liverpool again lacked the incisive vigor of their 13-match unbeaten run, although credit, too, must go to a Blackburn side that stayed impressively compact to frustrate their Premier League opponents and deny them an avenue through the center.
Liverpool did still have a couple of chances, with Jordan Henderson scuffing a volley wide in just the fifth minute and Coutinho similarly failing to make clear contact with a strike following a corner. In between, Daniel Sturridge, back in the starting lineup after injury, forced Blackburn’s goalkeeper into action as Eastwood turned a curling strike over the bar.
But, while dominating possession, Liverpool’s inability to remain secure at the back kept Blackburn more than interested going forward. Mamadou Sakho’s ludicrous hesitancy in the box allowed Craig Conway in, only for the French defender to recover and stave off the danger. Sakho was to suffer an injury soon after, and he was severely compromised to allow Blackburn what was the clearest sight on goal of the first 45 minutes. But Blackburn’s top scorer Jordan Rhodes failed to take advantage as he headed wide.
In contrast to what had transpired for the previous three halves of the tie, the second period at Ewood Park began with chances aplenty. Mignolet had to excel to first turn away a swerving strike by Tom Cairney, and then in spectacular fashion deny a header from Ben Marshall that was heading for the corner and even appeared to get a touch off the arm of Henderson on its way through.
While Liverpool produced their best move of the match to almost get Henderson through at the other end, the arrival of Rudy Gestede off the bench threatened to put Blackburn in the ascendency. Unable to start because of injury, the striker, as in the first match, gave Liverpool’s defense problems with his physicality.
Instead, Coutinho, not for the first time this season, came up big for the Merseysiders. And, while Sturridge, still clearly to rediscover his sharpness, missed a chance to make their semifinal place safe, Liverpool showed resolve to hold out to allow them to begin looking forward to a trip to at least one trip to Wembley.