For those who cling to the nostalgia that the FA Cup is the centrepiece of an English football season, the “Gerrard Final” is still a going concern.
The notion of Steven Gerrard playing his last game for Liverpool on his 35th birthday at Wembley against, presumably, Arsenal is a marketing man’s dream, although the club he captains has made heavy weather of reaching the semi-final.
Only the victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park – which given what they suffered there last season must count as an exorcism of sorts – showed genuine quality. This was a slog, decided by what Gerrard’s replacement as captain, Jordan Henderson, called Philippe Coutinho’s “brilliant football brain”.
In the passionate surrounds of Ewood Park, a reminder of why Blackburn were once such an integral part of the Premier League, the men from the Championship played an almost perfect tactical game.
It ended with their goalkeeper, Simon Eastwood, in the Liverpool area for a Rovers corner turning to shoot at his opposite number, Simon Mignolet, who saved superbly.
Mignolet has been the subject of intense scrutiny and it would still be a surprise if he were Liverpool’s No 1 next season. However, in the goalless draw at Anfield and now in the replay, he has produced saves that have kept Liverpool’s season alive.
Coutinho’s superbly-taken winner took Liverpool through to their second domestic semi-final of the season but, instead of the menacing shape of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea barring their way over two legs, there is Aston Villa at Wembley on Sunday week.
Given that Liverpool is a club that measures success by silverware rather than fourth-placed finishes, they are still on course for a successful season. For their opponents, whose FA Cup run had restored so much belief, there is just the summer to look forward to. Cup fever had taken a while to arrive in Blackburn. Their fourth-round tie that had seen them eliminate Swansea had been watched by fewer than 6,000. There had been less than 14,000 to see Josh King destroy Stoke, who had then seemed a decent outside bet for the FA Cup. Now every ticket had been sold.
The stadium was something it has rarely been during the club’s years of decline: loud and raucous, although their taunts to the Liverpool fans that they had “never won the league” suggested most could not imagine football in a time before Sky Sports.
Blackburn had as little chance of making the play-offs as Liverpool did of making the Champions League. For both teams, the FA Cup was the last competition standing.
In many ways Blackburn’s has been a typical story of a second division side enjoying a run in the FA Cup. From Sunderland in 1973 to Cardiff in 2008, seven sides have reached the final from the second tier but none came anywhere near winning promotion while doing so.
Had Gary Bowyer had a full-strength team, the Blackburn manager might have really fancied his chances of breaking through a Liverpool defence missing Martin Skrtel and Emre Can. By the time the tie was 27 minutes old, Rodgers was without Mamadou Sakho, who appeared to have pulled a hamstring.
Kolo Toure, who had been horribly exposed at Arsenal, took his place at the centre of an unconvincing defence. The Ivorian would find the pitch rather more awkward and the opposition employing very different tactics to those he had encountered at the Emirates.
Nevertheless, Bowyer had a dozen footballers unavailable. In the first game at Anfield, Rudy Gestede had proved a constant menace but, not fully fit, he began this one on the bench until coming on to a roar of approval with little less than half an hour remaining. In his place was Jordan Rhodes, whose involvement in Blackburn’s FA Cup had thus far been 13 minutes.
The tactics were to drive the ball up to Rhodes’ head but only once in the opening 45 minutes did it succeed, only for Rhodes to direct his header into the bank of Liverpool supporters that crammed the Darwen End.
Liverpool had, as you might expect, the bulk of possession and the greater number of chances. Only one of them until the goal was dangerous; a low shot from Coutinho that went through a phalanx of legs and was seen late and saved wonderfully by Eastwood. Only Glen Johnson, driving forward from full back, threatened to outflank Blackburn’s back four.
It was not until the opening exchanges of the second half that Mignolet, whose wonderful, one-handed parry from Alex Baptiste in front of the Kop had kept Liverpool in the FA Cup, was forced into any kind of save.
It was, however, worth his wait. First was a two-handed block from a fierce drive by Tom Cairney and from the resultant corner he made a very similar save to Eastwood’s, pushing Ben Marshall’s header at full stretch on to the post.
Mignolet had now given Liverpool two lives in this quarter-final. The question he must have asked himself is why the forwards at the other end of the pitch had taken so long to profit from them?
Twenty minutes from time, they did – and it was from a wonderfully-executed strike that followed a beautiful one-two with Henderson.
The angle in front of Coutinho was slim as he advanced into the box. There were defenders running to cover but the Brazilian picked his spot in the corner of Eastwood’s net, a few yards from where the Merseyside supporters were about to break into songs about Wembley.
Man of the match Coutinho.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee K Friend (Bristol).
Saturday 18 April
Reading v Arsenal; 5.20pm, Wembley, BBC1
Sunday 19 April Aston Villa v Liverpool; 3pm, Wembley, BT Sport 1
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