Carroll rises above criticism to be the hero

Liverpool 2 Everton 1: Late winner by much-derided £35 million striker gives Liverpool a return on their investment at last and buys Dalglish time as Everton suffer more derby woes

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Appropriately enough, with the Grand National being run back home at Aintree, it was a £35m striker much derided as a pony-tailed donkey who provided the thoroughbred moment to settle this Mersey squabble. Andy Carroll, for so long lampooned, produced the defining touch of quality in a largely arid FA Cup semi-final to ensure Liverpool return here next month.

Carroll's deft header three minutes from time completed a Liverpool comeback begun just after the hour when Luis Suarez cancelled out Nikica Jelavic's 24th-minute opener.

A second final may not meet the Champions' League aspirations of the Fenway Sports Group, but together with their Carling Cup triumph it should be enough to ensure Kenny Dalglish survives the Americans' "root-and-branch" review to continue his rebuilding of Liverpool.

"We're not going too great in the League, but this is two cup finals, one we've won, one we're looking forward to," he said. "This pleases everyone at Liverpool Football Club."

For Everton there was only despair, a familiar emotion against their neighbours running back through two finals, three semi-finals and a League Cup final. The last time Everton beat Liverpool in a game of this magnitude was in 1906 and, having failed to press home their superior form coming into this match, they must wonder if they will ever win one of these tussles.

The fact that victory was in their grasp, only to be carelessly tossed away, will have only darkened the Evertonian mood. The blue support had arrived full of noise and hope, both of which intensified when Jelavic seized upon a Jamie Carragher error. But Everton never built on their lead, seeming to lack composure and confidence, and paid a heavy price for sitting back.

For Carroll, his second winner in successive matches spelt redemption of the highest order. "He will be remembered forever," said Carragher. "That goal is worth £35m alone for me."

"It's the best feeling ever," said Carroll. "I had a few chances and I probably should have scored earlier but I kept going. I've had some criticism but I believe in myself."Indeed, Carroll missed a sitter at the far post from Stewart Downing's 46th-minute cross and dragged another chance wide after 79 minutes. But, otherwise, he played well enough to deserve his goal and glory.

If semi-finals often throw up an unlikely hero, they also produce villains. Yesterday's was Sylvain Distin. There is a recognition among senior figures at Goodison Park that admiration for the veteran's qualities has to be tempered by recognition that, as one said this week, "he has a mistake in him". Yesterday he chose a bad time to confirm that judgement, attempting a blind back-pass more than 30 yards from goal. It was hit too softly and Suarez seized the opportunity to put Liverpool back into a match which had been drifting away.

At the final whistle Distin was distraught and disconsolate. He took an age to haul himself off the turf as Liverpool celebrated around him, then dragged himself around the rapidly emptying blue half of the stadium, his head bowed and his hands up in apology.

When he finally left the pitch, the last Evertonian, he found David Moyes waiting to offer a consoling arm. "He's really down," said Moyes afterwards. "He's an experienced player, he's won the cup before with Portsmouth, he knows what it means. But he's been great for us and we are in it together." However, Distin himself was inconsolable: "I take full responsibility," he said. "I've cost a lot of people a place in the final.''

And deep down Moyes knew the importance of the error. "The mistake gave Liverpool impetus," he acknowledged. "I knew it would be a tight game and I thought we could see it out. We were so desperate to get to the final for the supporters. I feel for them all. The team feel it."

Moyes said he thought Everton deserved to lead but, in truth, this was their worst performance in weeks. Possession was surrendered too easily to sustain any pressure. Liverpool's third-choice goalkeeper,Brad Jones, was able to settle. By the end he was claiming crosses 15 yards off his line like Bruce Grobbelaar used to, but some earlier flaps hinted at what might have happened had Everton tested him.

Maybe it was the occasion, maybe the emotional impact of the pre-match period of silence for the 96 Liverpool supporters who died at Hillsborough, but for whatever reason the match lacked the snap and bite of recent derbies. This fixture is responsible for more red cards than any other in the Premier League, but there was never any likelihood of Howard Webb needing to add to the tally.

After Jay Spearing put an early chance over, the match stagnated. Then Daniel Agger and Carragher hesitated over a clearance, Carraher smacked it into Tim Cahill, and Jelavic stroked in the rebound. The goal seemed to inhibit Everton but until Distin's error Liverpool rarely looked like scoring. Chances remained rare until Seamus Coleman rashly tripped Steven Gerrard, Craig Bellamy crossed and Carroll delivered.

So Everton's owner, Bill Kenwright, who queued all night as a nine-year-old to get his ticket for his first derby match (a 4-0 FA Cup defeat in 1955), was on the losing side again. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Liverpool's owners ponder an improved return on their investment.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Jones; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger; Henderson (Rodriguez, 75), Gerrard, Spearing, Downing (Bellamy, 84); Suarez, Carroll.

Everton (4-4-1-1): Howard; Neville, Heitinga, Distin, Baines (Anichebe, 88); Osman, Fellaini, Gibson, Magaye (Coleman, 69); Cahill; Jelavic.

Referee Howard Webb.

Man of the match Carroll (Liverpool).

Match rating 6/10.

How the costly signings fared

Liverpool fired Damien Comolli, their director of football, this week after what Tom Werner, the club's joint owner, said was "a disconnect in executing strategy", a phrase translated as meaning "our £110m transfer investment has been wasted".

Nevertheless Kenny Dalglish selected all the most criticised signings made under the new regime bar the injured Charlie Adam. How did they perform?

Andy Carroll (from Newcastle, £35m)

Had Carroll not scored a late winner at Blackburn in midweek Dalglish may have omitted him, but the 23-year-old justified his selection with an all-round line-leading display capped by his well-taken goal. There remains a suspicion that he is unsuited to Liverpool's game and he did miss several chances, but he never hid.

Luis Suarez (from Ajax, £22.8m)

Took his goal superbly, and while it was a bad error by Distin, it came about because Suarez was harrying the defender. He also troubled Distin and Johnny Heitinga with his quick movement and combative behaviour.

Stewart Downing (from Middlesbrough, £20m)

The stats say he has barely made a goal since moving to Anfield, but that is in part due to poor finishing. Even when he provided Carroll with the sort of cross the striker has been dreaming of all season, he missed.

Jordan Henderson (from Sunderland, £16m)

Another quiet match, though there were moments when he impressed. However, too often seems on a different wavelength from his forwards.