Liverpool win 3-2 on aggregate
De Jong 31'
Gerrard 40' (pen)
*Shakes head* Football, man. Football.
So much for Liverpool holding what they had. This was no lock-down defensive effort. Liverpool played defense by attacking, and would have settled the tie far sooner if not for Joe Hart's continuing brilliance.
Liverpool played as they played for the first twenty minutes in the previous leg, taking the game to City, and could have been ahead within four minutes. Lescott's failed clearance fell to the feet of Enrique, somehow denied point-blank by Hart. Bellamy was an indescribable handful up front, and forced another excellent save with a strong turn and shot in the 21st. The all-action striker was supported by Downing, Henderson and Kuyt, with Adam and Gerrard deeper, Adam joining the attack more often than the captain.
City had more and more possession, but had been wholly blunted until the 31st, unable to enter the final third and unable to register a shot anywhere near the target. Until de Jong, of all players, found space 25 yards out when Adam stupidly chased Silva and the ball even though both were covered by Gerrard, leaving space for City's holding midfielder to cannon a shot he'll never be able to replicate. One shot on target, one goal.
But Liverpool weren't behind for long. Unlike against Bolton, or in other dreadful disappointments, heads didn't drop. Nine minutes later, Adam partly made amends by starting a move which won the penalty, brilliantly shifting into space past Barry, with his cross deflected out to Agger, the same player who won the penalty in the last meeting. City fans and contrarian "neutrals" will decry the decision, as Agger's shot struck Richards' leg before hitting his arm, but Richards probably shouldn't have had both hands above his head to block a goal-bound effort. Gerrard's penalty was a carbon copy of the last, and Hart had even less of a chance to stop this one.
Back ahead, Liverpool didn't look to change tactics after the interval. And although City made a half-time substitution, bringing on Agüero for the hapless Savic (having strangely played three center-backs in the first half), Liverpool remained the more-attacking side. Hart repeated earlier excellence with wonderful saves to deny Skrtel and Downing within ten minutes of the whistle. But then City struck again. Quickly countering with Glen Johnson caught upfield, Kolarov eluded Gerrard, with his cross met by Dzeko inches from goal as Agger didn't track his run. Two shots on target, two goals. Meanwhile, Liverpool had taken somewhere around 15 at this point.
But what looked to be a hammer blow, yet another nail in a coffin full of them, was only a seven-minute setback. Bellamy, who looked out on his feet, ready to be substituted any minute, restored Liverpool's aggregate lead after lovely interplay with Kuyt and Johnson: Kuyt cut in from the right and found Bellamy in the box, and Bellamy played a wonderful one-two with the advancing Johnson before slotting past his former teammate. It's always nice when a narrative comes to fruition.
Unsurprisingly, Liverpool were under pressure for the final 15 minutes, and City actually registered shots on target which didn't go in. Substitute Adam Johnson shot tamely at Reina following unbelievable recovery speed from Enrique, while the otherwise uninvolved Agüero bicycled straight at the keeper in injury time. Agger also had to be on hand to block Dzeko's scrambled close-range effort in the 87th, right before Dalglish replaced Bellamy with another defender in Martin Kelly.
For once, attack serves as the best form of defense for Liverpool, which is a welcome but rare occurrence this season. Bellamy was indescribably important, a release valve with his pace, a non-stop irascible handful who put City under constant pressure. His reward is facing another former club in the final. Gerrard was Liverpool's other standout, playing as the deepest midfielder. It's no coincidence both Silva and Agüero were almost nonexistent with the captain in that position. And, with Liverpool using a five-man midfield, his partnership with Adam was vastly improved, despite the Scot's role in City's opener. Henderson was also excellent as the most advanced midfielder, while Kuyt had what was easily his best match of this otherwise forgettable season.
I hate to be Captain Buzzkill, but this obviously doesn't excuse poor performance after poor performance against all those sides we expected Liverpool to beat. If anything, it makes those performances more infuriating. Once again, Liverpool hit heights against top-quality opposition, at their best against the best. Tactics, personnel, and individual performances all ranged from mostly faultless to supremely impressive.
And now, with the first trip to the new Wembley on the horizon – Liverpool's first trip to any Wembley for 16 seasons – hopefully this performance will serve as the confidence boost and catalyst we've been waiting months for.