Fowler 16, 86 McAteer 90
Winning the Coca-Cola Cup is all very well, but the FA Cup remains the real thing. That was the message yesterday as Liverpool, finalists on seven occasions since Aston Villa last contested the trophy, booked another trip to Wembley thanks to the opportunism of Robbie Fowler, though this semi-final was much closer than the score suggests.
A week earlier Villa had taken their leave of the twin towers with a stunning strike by Dwight Yorke. Mentally, they may have still been there when Fowler headed Liverpool into an early lead, but were pressing hard for extra time when the same player's second goal guaranteed the triumph of Toxteth over Tobago and a reprise of the 1977 final for the North-west's twin powers.
Jason McAteer added a third in the dying seconds, yet while Liverpool deserved their victory, it was Villa's refusal to accept what fate seemed to have in store for them which ensured that for once both semi-finals lived up to expectations. With many of the crowd having paid as much as pounds 38, a factor which kept the attendance down to four-fifths of capacity, that was just as well.
Fears that the two sides might cancel each other out because of tactical similarities proved unfounded. True, neither team got their wing-backs forward in the manner to which they are accustomed, and the respective defensive trios generally had the measure of the two striking partnerships.
Midfield though remained surprisingly open, with both managers favouring craft ahead of graft. But in the semi-final analysis, Liverpool prevailed because in Fowler they possessed a player capable of finishing in the most ruthless style.
The 20-year-old striker has now scored in every round, and Manchester United will be pushed to prevent his rounding off an incredible season by adding to his haul on 11 May.
The flip-side of Fowler's delight was Gareth Southgate's disappointment. The pair were England colleagues for the first time last week, albeit briefly, but their reunion lasted barely 20 minutes before the Villa defender had to retire. In that time, however, Fowler had had already stolen a march on Southgate to give Liverpool a 16th-minute lead.
Moments before the breakthrough the latter had to be helped to the touchline for treatment to his right knee. In returning, with Villa facing up to Jamie Redknapp's free-kick, he made a beeline for Fowler. As the ball swung in, Fowler edged in front of his marker, stooping to glance a header just inside Mark Bosnich's right-hand post.
While Southgate soon left the fray, Villa's resolve intensified. Ian Taylor, galloping on to Yorke's knock-down, was sandwiched off the ball by John Scales and Steve McManaman. In any part of the pitch other than the penalty area one or both of the challenges would probably have been penalised. Mr Durkin was having none of it.
Savo Milosevic almost repeated his ferocious goal against Leeds, while David James saved Yorke's shot from only a yard out after Ugo Ehiogu had climbed to meet a corner from the tirelessly creative Mark Draper. Had Milosevic been blessed with a right foot that was good for anything but standing, he might have equalised shortly before half-time.
Nevertheless, Villa came out fighting after the interval, with James again blocking at point-blank range from Ehiogu. But by committing so many men to attack, Villa were increasingly exposed at the back. Only a vintage recovery by Paul McGrath prevented the otherwise peripheral Stan Collymore from doubling the advantage.
It was a sign that Liverpool had ridden out the storm. John Barnes produced another with a 30-yard drive which Bosnich brilliantly touched against the angle of post and bar, before Fowler gave another demonstration of his predatory prowess with four minutes remaining.
Anticipating Steve Staunton's clearing header following another Redknapp free-kick, he peeled off to the edge of the 18-yard area. A classic volley took Fowler's goal tally for the season to 33, and his total against Villa to five in three games in the space of just two months.
The referee was looking at his watch when McAteer, heading a queue of Liverpool players awaiting McManaman's low cross, added insult to injury time for Villa. The Liverpudlian legions, fewer in number than at any semi-final in living memory, were exultant. They will be there in force at Wembley.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, McGrath, Southgate (Staunton, 21); Charles, Taylor, Draper, Townsend, A Wright; Yorke, Milosevic (Johnson, 79). Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).
Liverpool (3-5-2): James; M Wright, Scales, Ruddock; McAteer, Redknapp, Barnes, McManaman, R Jones; Fowler, Collymore (Rush 85). Substitutes not used: Harkness, Warner (gk).
Referee: P Durkin (Portland, Dorset).
Bookings: Aston Villa: Townsend, Charles.
Man of the Match: Fowler.