Fabian Delph destroyed Steven Gerrard’s hopes of a fairytale Liverpool send-off by scoring the winner as Aston Villa reached the FA Cup final with a 2-1 victory on Sunday.
Liverpool captain Gerrard, who turns 35 on the day of the final, had hoped to end his glittering Liverpool career picking up his third FA Cup winner’s medal, but instead it is Tim Sherwood’s Villa who will meet holders Arsenal on 30 May.
It is 15 years since Villa last reached an FA Cup final and 58 years since they last won it, but this club has been transformed since Sherwood succeeded Paul Lambert as manager on Valentine’s Day. A win against Arsenal will see the Villains back in Europe next season.
For Liverpool fans who have not won a trophy since Brendan Rodgers became manager in 2012, murmurs are starting to surface about whether Rodgers is really the man to walk in the footsteps of Shankly,Paisley, Dalglish and Benitez. Those legendary managers knew how to win the big games, something that Rodgers does not. It is shocking had bad Liverpool were at Wembley on Sunday. Teams have bad performances, bit coming on the back of defeats to Manchester United and Arsenal, questions have to asked about Rodgers future, especially with Jurgen Klopp unexpectedly available.
Villa’s tactic of looking to hit Benteke at the earliest opportunity quickly forced Liverpool back and Simon Mignolet was forced to tip over a shot from Charles N’Zogbia, who was deputising for the injured Gabriel Agbonlahor. Mid-way through the first half, both sides made changes that were to lead to the opening goal, with Jores Okore replacing the injured Nathan Baker at the back for Villa and Liverpool reverting to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Minutes later, Okore’s failure to deal with Jordan Henderson’s tame square pass enabled Raheem Sterling to roll the ball into the path of the onrushing Coutinho, who stole into the box and scored via a deflection off Okore’s knee. Rodgers’s tactical switch had brought immediate dividends, but his side’s lead would not last long.
With Liverpool still readjusting to the new system, Delph raided into space down Villa’s left and cut the ball back for Benteke to steer home his ninth goal in seven games. Liverpool’s play was crying out for an attacking focal point and at half-time Rodgers sent on Mario Balotelli for Lazar Markovic, which saw Gerrard repositioned in front of the back four in another re-shuffle.
But it was Villa’s football that bristled with attacking intent and nine minutes into the second half they went in front with a neatly worked goal. Benteke cantered down the left flank and back-heeled the ball to Jack Grealish, Villa’s apparently nerveless 19-year-old playmaker, who rolled a pass into the box for Delph, and the England man stepped inside Dejan Lovren before scoring with his right foot.
It could have been 3-1 just after the hour, but when the ball rolled into Kieran Richardson’s path after Lovren had slid in to thwart Grealish, the former Manchester United man miscued his shot.
Gerrard has made a habit of producing Hollywood endings, but this time the occasion proved beyond him. He could only steer a free-kick straight at Shay Given and when he headed Coutinho’s corner towards goal with four minutes remaining, Richardson was on hand to head it away from the goal line.