When Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring for Liverpool in their English FA Cup Semi-Final at Wembley against Aston Villa on Sunday, it was generally acknowledged that an Arsenal versus Liverpool cup final appeared likely and that Steven Gerrard would be offered the opportunity to earn an FA Cup winner’s medal in his last season at Anfield. Unfortunately for Gerrard, Aston Villa did not read the script during an enthralling weekend of cup action at Wembley.
The semi-final action began with Arsenal attempting to overcome the challenge of Championship team Reading on Saturday evening. The Gunners had won their previous eight competitive games and appeared set to justify their label as overwhelming favourites when Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring to earn a first half lead. The Royals had failed to win a Championship game since clinching their semi-final berth when beating Bradford in a sixth round replay, but they began the second period with purpose and shocked the Premier League team by equalising via a Garath McCleary goal.
Both teams then missed clear chances before the game entered extra-time, to be followed by a moment of the match which will haunt Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici for many years to come. He allowed a shot from Sanchez to escape from his grasp and was then unable to prevent the slow moving ball from entering the net.
There was no further score allowing Arsenal to claim a 2-1 win as the Australian goalkeeper left the field in tears. Yet reassuring words were offered by team-mate Jamie Mackie stressing that but for his heroics throughout the season, Reading would now occupy a position in the relegation zone.
With Arsenal sealing their place at the Wembley cup final, Liverpool were considered as strong favourites to join the Gunners with Aston Villa providing the opposition. However, questions were being asked about a Liverpool team which had suffered recent defeats against Manchester United and Arsenal, and had only just beaten Blackburn in a sixth round replay.
When Coutinho netted the opening goal in that semi-final, a Liverpool victory appeared likely despite a far from convincing performance in the first half hour. Yet it could be argued that the outcome of the match was eventually determined by the presence and absence of two strikers.
Since Tim Sherwood was appointed as manager of Aston Villa, the form of Belgian striker Christian Benteke has improved significantly and he had claimed five league goals in three games during April prior to this fixture and his swift equaliser against Liverpool turned the match in favour of his team. Fabian Delph netted a second half winner for a Villa team playing with much greater confidence now that Benteke has regained his goal scoring form.
For Liverpool, the injury woes of Daniel Sturridge continue to haunt the team as his replacements appear unable to replicate the direct running and general prolific strike rate of the England striker. As captain Steven Gerrard sat on the Wembley turf at the end of the match, he must have been rueing the absence of a fit Sturridge and the end of his dream of securing one last FA Cup winner’s medal,