Liverpool once again do it the hard way. A first half goal from Nikica Jelavic left the Reds chasing the match, but a Sylvain Distin error allowed Luis Suarez to equalize before Andy Carroll wrapped up proceedings with another late winner. For all the disappointment of a less than acceptable league campaign, Kenny Dalglish can now look forward to another trip to Wembley to face either Chelsea or Tottenham in the FA Cup final on May 5th and a chance to silence, at least for now, the critics that have hounded his first full year back in the Liverpool dugout.
A moment of silence before kickoff to honor the 96 Liverpool fans lost at the Hillsborough Stadium disaster preceded the match and was impeccably observed by both sets of supporters. Although silence readily fell in memory of those never forgotten, peace and quiet would be a thing of the past once it all kicked off.
There are few who would dispute that Everton had the better of the first half. Early chances for Jay Spearing and Luis Suarez would have suggested otherwise, but the Toffees quickly found their feet and the discord in the Liverpool back line began to show. A calamitous mix-up between Agger and Carragher gifted the ball to Nikica Jelavic who made no mistake in slotting the ball past Brad Jones to give Everton the lead. The inclusion of Carragher, who shifted Daniel Agger out to the left in place of Jose Enrique, continues to be a hotly debated topic as the Scouser has lost the defensive prowess that once made him a Merseyside hero.
With the Reds malfunctioning, the confidence displayed by David Moyes translated onto the pitch with Everton looking for another goal to cushion what was looking like a comfortable lead. The possession battle was being won by Liverpool, but having the ball and actually doing something with it are two entirely different things and it looked as though the Reds had already run out of ideas until a gift from Sylvain Distin gave them the re-charge they were desperate for.
With no changes at the half, the Reds looked like an entirely different team. Stewart Downing, who had a poor first half, was working well down the right hand side and a peach of a cross found an unmarked Andy Carroll who could only head the ball wide. With his shirt up over his face, the Geordie was summing up the day with one gesture before the work rate of Suarez paid off in spades. A routine back pass to Tim Howard was hit short by Distin and as the Uruguayan latched onto it, John Heitinga couldn’t do a thing as the equalizer rolled into the net.
The travelling Kop in full voice, the Bitter Blues silenced; the stage was set. Carroll would have another crack at the net, but it would be Jelavic, signed for £30mil less than the England man, who would look the more dangerous of the two when his well worked shot whistled into the side netting to the obvious disappointment of the Everton faithful. With Bellamy and Maxi on for Henderson and Downing, Dalglish was going for broke as time ticked down. Many were surprised that changes weren’t made sooner, but that talking point would become moot when Everton substitute Seamus Coleman needlessly fouled Steven Gerrard to concede a free kick in a dangerous position.
Missed chances are soon forgotten when you score the winner in not only a derby, but a match that sends your side through to a Cup final. Craig Bellamy’s whipped free kick was flicked by Carroll and a million or more journalists began deleting paragraphs. Phrases like “waste of money”, “bottler” and “massive failure” all disappeared into the nether as Andy ran to the fans to celebrate with a smile like nothing else. Two matches on the trot, and two late winners. It’s not quite vindication, he still has a long way to go towards justifying his price tag, but it’s the kind of start towards it that everyone wants to make.
You have to go all the way back to 1906 to find the last time Everton beat Liverpool in a FA Cup semi-final and the weight of history would be too much for David Moyes and his men to make up. A late surge from the Blues saw Brad Jones ease the pressure with a clutch grab and although it’s unlikely that he’ll have any further role to play with Pepe Reina returning from suspension, the Aussie ‘keeper deserves a massive pat on the back for holding down the fort in only his second start since his move to Merseyside.
By the time the final whistle blew, we were already wondering who we’d have the final. Both Tottenham and Chelsea present a challenge worth facing, but right now that doesn’t matter one bit. Tactics, formation, team selection can all take a back seat for now. We’re back at Wembley for the third time this season and we can win; hard way or otherwise. A season filled with disappointment is coming to a close and we now have the opportunity to make these last few months all worth it.
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