THERE will be no fairytale end to Steven Gerrard’s Liverpool career after Aston Villa came from behind to deservedly book their place in the FA Cup final with a 2-1 win over the Reds.
Aston Villa - 2
Benteke 36, Delph 54
Liverpool - 1
Referee: M Oliver
Wembley was supposed to be the scene for Gerrard’s grand send-off, with the final falling on his 35th birthday and supposedly destined to be the last game of his long Anfield career before embarking on a new challenge with Los Angeles Galaxy.
Instead England’s national stadium proved to be another venue where Liverpool came up short, just like last season at Anfield against Chelsea and Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace when their title challenge faltered.
It was a familiar foe who set the wheels of defeat in motion as rejuvenated Belgium striker Christian Benteke, who memorably terrorised Liverpool’s defence with a two-goal show at Anfield in December 2012, cancelled out Philippe Coutinho’s opener with his ninth goal in his last seven games.
Fabian Delph’s strike 10 minutes into the second half booked Villa’s first FA Cup final appearance since 2000 as Liverpool’s pressure was too little and far too late.
It also secured the club’s first win over Liverpool in the competition in eight meetings, dating back to an 1897 semi-final, when they went on to lift the trophy.
But while the omens are good for them, there was nothing for Gerrard to cling to. He was given the chance to lead the side out at Wembley after Lucas Leiva sustained a thigh injury in training but he looked like a player with just 27 minutes’ football behind him in the last two months as a result of injury and suspension.
This was not the Gerrard who took the 2006 final by the scruff of the neck at the Millennium Stadium and at times it looked like he was playing from memory, making runs but not quite getting on the end of things and then seeing Villa pass the ball around him.
Even a mid-half change in formation as manager Brendan Rodgers switched to 4-2-3-1 – mainly to combat Villa’s dominance – with the captain moved into his supposedly most effective position behind the striker failed to get any more out of him.
All the focus on Gerrard overshadowed a confident performance by Villa’s midfield with young tyro Jack Grealish belying his 19 years with a composed and energetic display, ably supported by Delph.
Liverpool’s move to a flat back four actually saw them establish a foothold in the game which led to them taking a 30th-minute lead when Jordan Henderson’s cut-back eventually made its way to Raheem Sterling via a Gerrard tackle and Lazar Markovic.
Sterling weighted a pass perfectly for Coutinho to run on to and shoot past Villa goalkeeper Shay Given, aided by a deflection off Jores Okore. The Brazil international had scored twice before in the run to Wembley, both winners, but any dreams he had of sending his side to the final were snuffed out six minutes later.
Delph and Grealish carved open the right side of Liverpool’s newly-restructured defence and the former’s pass to Benteke was stroked home first time.
Another tactical switch by Rodgers at half-time saw Mario Balotelli replace Markovic and Gerrard dropped to the deep-lying role in a 4-1-4-1 shape he performed so well in Liverpool’s failed title bid last season and that, at least, afforded him a little more time on the ball.
It did not, however, provide Liverpool with any protection for Villa’s second as Benteke’s run and lay-off allowed Grealish to slide a pass inside the area to Delph, who cut back to score with his right foot.
Rodgers had insisted, after back-to-back defeats to top-four rivals Manchester United and Arsenal, that his players did not have a mental barrier about getting the job done in big games.
However, they appeared to lack ideas and leaders as their opponents sat back and countered with pace, with Villa’s commitment typified by Ashley Westwood, who threw himself in the way of Joe Allen’s shot as Liverpool stepped up the pressure.
Gerrard had one chance to make an impact on the game with a free-kick 10 minutes from time but his shot deflected off the wall and safely into the arms of Given, while Dejan Lovren headed over his captain’s corner.
The Liverpool skipper knew it was not to be his day when his near-post header was cleared off the line by Kieran Richardson, while Balotelli being flagged offside – wrongly on this occasion – after putting the ball in net encapsulated his afternoon.
As Villa manager Tim Sherwood ran along the touchline celebrating at the final whistle Gerrard stood motionless, hands on hips, before dropping onto his haunches.
He knew it was not meant to end like this but, unlike in those famous episodes of his heyday, he could do nothing about it this time.