Andy Carroll ensured that Liverpool’s hope of a domestic cup double this season remain on course. Carroll’s header completed an impressive second-half turnaround, after Nikica Jelavic had accepted a gift from the Liverpool defence to give Everton an early lead.
It says much of modern football that league position is often given greater precedent over triumphing in cup competitions – depressingly so. However, there is no doubt that reaching two domestic finals represents success for a Liverpool side which remains one “in progress”.
Indeed, whilst there is much progress yet to be made, Kenny Dalglish and his Liverpool team now have the chance to end the season having won two of the three competitions which they entered – and realistically the only two trophies which they had a chance of winning at start of the campaign. From any perspective that would not be a success to be sniffed at.
Liverpool’s number nine continued the upward momentum of his recent form. Having scored the winning goal against Blackburn Rovers a few days earlier, another header from Carroll won this high pressure cup tie.
There can be little doubt that Liverpool as a team are better off when Carroll is in the starting XI; and the stats backup the assertion. He may not have scored enough goals to date but the Reds are a more complete team when Carroll is in tandem with Luis Suarez; and that is equally as important.
Despite the ridiculously early start, the atmosphere in and around Wembley began building a long time before kick-off; for what was surely the biggest and most tense Merseyside Derby since the last occasion that the two clubs met at Wembley Stadium, in 1989.
A moments silence pre-kick-off to reflect on the anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy was almost immaculately observed by both sides. From there on Wembley was filled with an electrifying atmosphere of which both Merseyside clubs could be proud.
Both teams struggled to settle in the early stages and failed to consistently find any rhythm to their passing. Everton took the lead on 24 minutes and perhaps unsurprisingly in came via a Liverpool error, rather than a moment of creativity.
Jamie Carragher was accommodated a place in the heart of the defence, with Daniel Agger returning as a left full-back, but both players were at fault for the opening goal. It was Carragher who should have made a routine clearance on the edge of his own penalty area. Instead, both he and Agger hesitated, expecting the other to hit the ball clear; Carragher eventual struck his clearance against Tim Cahill. The ball deflected into the path of Jelavic and the in-form Croatian was not going to pass up the opportunity to slot past a helpless Brad Jones.
Jay Spearing had found himself with an excellent opportunity to score his first senior Liverpool goal in the opening two minutes. Spearing firing his shot over the bar from inside the box following Carroll’s knock-down. That aside, Liverpool’s play was fragmented in the first-half and the Blues dominated the midfield battle.
Everton, though, failed to take advantage of their first-half superiority. Stand-in goalkeeper, Jones, was rarely put under pressure. Whilst the Australian looked comfortable with the few crosses and shots which he was required to deal with.
The impetus of the tie finally began to change after half-time and Liverpool were rewarded for their evident improvement on 62 minutes. Although it was another defensive error which proved decisive. This time it was Everton’s Sylvain Distin who was the culprit.
Suarez was the Reds key performer all afternoon. His creativity in and around the penalty area is an obvious asset to Liverpool’s play but a willingness to constantly chase and hassle the opposition defence also defines the Uruguayan. Perhaps it was that constant pressure which was the root cause of Distin’s horribly short back-pass.
Suarez sensed his chance as he raced onto the loose ball and he expertly beat Tim Howard as John Heitinga attempted to recover the situation.
Liverpool may well have been assisted by their last experience at Wembley, only six weeks earlier, when on that occasion they also fell behind before recovering to win.
The Reds were back on level terms and, more importantly, they clearly had all of the momentum from that point onwards.
It was a case of third time lucky for Carroll. The ex-Newcastle man went very close on two occasions in the second half, before eventual finding the back of Howard’s net.
Carroll is often a source of frustration in front of goal. But – if allowed to start on a regular basis – the goals just may begin to flow. The winning goal in an FA Cup semi-final can only give an incredible boost to the confidence of an oft-criticised striker.
Carroll held the ball up well and linked up well with Suarez, particularly in the second-half. He probably should have levelled the scores just seconds after half-time. Stewart Downing – who appeared far more effective once switched to the right – sent a high cross to the far post, from where Carroll connected. Those in red, and blue, expected the net to bulge but Carroll headed wide from close range.
Midway through the half, Carroll showed good footwork to work himself some space in the box; yet he drove just wide of the post when he, again, should have tested Howard.
Craig Bellamy provided the assist for the eventual winning goal, having been introduced along with Maxi Rodriguez inside the final 20 minutes, as Dalglish sought to make Liverpool’s dominance count and avoid extra-time.
Steven Gerrard drove forward down the Liverpool left and Seamus Coleman committed a clear foul – for which the Everton substitute may have warranted a second yellow card. Yet, Everton were made to pay. Bellamy swung in the resulting free-kick, from which Carroll was well-placed to head home from close-range.
The perfect time to score. With a little over two minutes, plus injury-time, remaining, the Blues had no response. Liverpool had progressed to a second final in the same season and Andy Carroll was the hero again. This season just may turn out to be a memorable one after all.
Man of the Match: LUIS SUAREZ
Arguably one of his best performances in a red shirt. Suarez was instrumental to Liverpool’s attacking play and never tired of working. Carroll also looked good alongside him.