Mancini's tinkering exposed by Bellamy
Liverpool 2 Manchester City 2 (Liverpool win 3-2 on aggregate)
For a traveller who has found a lasting football home so hard to find, it is an occasion which will be as cherished as it is deserved. Craig Bellamy, the man who grew up supporting Liverpool and had reason to believe his chance of achieving anything with them was in the past, last night sent them to their first Wembley appearance in 16 years – against his home-town team, Cardiff.
The significance of reaching the Carling Cup final was written across the windswept face of Kenny Dalglish and his old friends Ian Rush and Alan Hansen, beaming down on him from their place up in the stands, at the end. Progression to a League Cup final was a matter of course in the days when they all controlled the club's destiny together, out on the Anfield turf. It is why the trophy Liverpool have won seven times – more than any other club – was once called the "Mickey Mouse Cup'"by Phil Thompson.
But lifting that trophy means something far greater now, by allowing Dalglish to claim he has reached a significant staging post on the difficult road to take Liverpool back to a glorious past. There is another hurdle to clear, and the diplomacy about Cardiff started early last night, but Liverpool believe that the trophy is theirs to lift on 26 February.
The embrace Dalglish had for Bellamy, his matchwinner, as he left the field to an ovation made it clear that he knew the part he had played. Bellamy's difficult first chance at Liverpool was finished in a one-season blur of headlines, most of them commemorating golf clubs and John Arne Riise. This time it has been different and last night revealed why.
It was a return to raw Liverpool values from the manager for whom Wembley was always part of the changing of the seasons when the lighter nights came around. "This club has been built on a foundation of having respect for other people and a philosophy that the game in front of us is always the most important one," Dalglish said in his programme notes, a level of oratory you suspected was less industrial than that used on his players at Melwood on Tuesday after Saturday's defeat at Bolton.
Since Liverpool last appeared at Wembley, 16 years ago, no fewer than 60 clubs have graced the place and the hunger to go back was written all over Anfield, not least in Steven Gerrard's eye-watering early – and late – challenge on Gareth Barry.
"I don't want to be saying I finished in the top four a few times. I want to look back and say I won the Carling Cup three times. Or four. Or five," was how Gerrard summed up the feeling before the game. The traditional Anfield maelstrom, not a spare place in the house and no ranks of empty plastic seats as at the Etihad two weeks ago, suggested that 45,000 people knew what he was talking about.
Liverpool went at it like fury and there was immediate teetering from an experimental Manchester City defence, recomposed by Roberto Mancini with three central defenders and Aleksandar Kolarov and Pablo Zabaleta deployed as wide midfielders. Stewart Downing had just turned Micah Richards inside when Kolarov sliced the winger's shot straight to Jose Enrique standing in front of goal. The significance of Joe Hart to City's season has sometimes been obscured by other talents but his point- blank save – sticking out a right foot to block Enrique's shot – summed up his huge presence.
Another stop, low to his left, came from Charlie Adam's rasping 28-yard drive, then another, even better – one- handed, as Bellamy turned inside Savic, who was another of those central three. Bellamy looked to be on a mission to avenge the impatience which made Mancini so willing to let him leave City.
Then, out of the sky blue yonder, a rocket to send City ahead on 31 minutes. Their fans might feel they score at will but Nigel de Jong does not. His 30-yard shot, despatched as he lost his footing, arcing beyond Pepe Reina, was only his second in 103 starts for the club.
Liverpool were undeterred, though, and enjoyed a little of their own luck 10 minutes later as they went back ahead on aggregate. Daniel Agger's shot in the area ricocheted off Richards' leg to his upraised arm and the penalty Phil Dowd awarded, amid protests, was converted with intent by Gerrard, low to Hart's left.
Mancini soon did away with his experiments. The three-man defence was dispensed with, along with the suffering Savic after the break, and a conventional back four restored. Sergio Aguero was quite some luxury to introduce as the extra man. But little else changed as Hart maintained this one-man mission, with three more saves in 10 minutes. He cleared one Gerrard free-kick into Kolarov, with the suspicion that Kolarov might have handled, but palmed Dirk Kuyt's shot over the bar.
This effort seemed to have had its reward when City went back ahead against insuperable odds. One minute Bellamy was causing the danger down the right but the next Kolarov was doing something similar down Liverpool's left. After he had shaken off Gerrard, Aguero's presence distracted Martin Skrtel and the ball fell for Dzeko, who peeled away from Jose Enrique to convert his 15th goal of the season.
The size of the task looked substantial for Liverpool but Bellamy was the player in possession of most intent and the beauty of his 74th minute contribution was appropriate for a goal which sends his boyhood team back to the place where they have been absent for too long. Receiving Kuyt's ball into the area, he laid a deft little two-yard pass to Glen Johnson and spun away to receive it and find a shot which was too much for Hart. Bellamy, and Liverpool, are going to the place where they have always wanted to be.
Liverpool: Kelly (Bellamy, 88), Carroll (Kuyt, 90).
Manchester City: Aguero (Savic, h-t), A Johnson (De Jong, 78).
Liverpool: Gerrard, Enrique.
Manchester City: Kolarov.
Man of the match: Bellamy.
Match rating 7/10.
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