This week saw the second-legs of the Carling Cup semi-finals take place. On Tuesday evening a packed house watched as Malkay Mackay’s Cardiff City overcame Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace side after a penalty shoot-out. The match finished 1-1 on aggregate after extra time, Anthony Gardner, the former Spurs defender, currently of Palace, scored an own goal cancelling out his goal in the first leg and handing Cardiff a 1-0 victory on the night. Cardiff proceeded to win 3-1 on penalties, Jonathan Parr missing the crucial kick for Palace, with Conway, Gestede and Whittingham making it a night to remember for the Welsh team, who booked their place at Wembley.
It was a Welshman who stole the show in the week’s second semi -final, Craig Bellamy scoring the decisive goal for Liverpool as they drew 2-2 with Manchester City at Anfield on Wednesday night. Having beaten City 1-0 in the first-leg, the 2-2 scoreline was enough to send the Reds to Wembley for the first time since 1986 as they progressed 3-2 on aggregate, in front of a delirious home support.
The match began in much the same way as the first-leg had, Liverpool storming out of the blocks and City looking tentative and a little nervy. Within four minutes Kolarov almost gifted Liverpool the lead, his sliced clearance fell for Jose Enrique, whose goal-bound effort was saved, at full stretch, by the boot of Joe Hart, only for Downing to volley wide on the rebound.
Bellamy was a livewire, and by far Liverpool’s most dangerous player on the night, he brought two good saves out of Hart before putting the ball in the net just before the half hour mark, the assistant’s flag dampening the celebrations. Liverpool were fairly dominant, however, it was City who opened the scoring, Nigel de Jong with a fabulous, if not fortuitous, 30 yard screamer. The City midfielder, whose previous goal-scoring record for the Sky Blues was 1 goal in 117 starts, slipped as he hit the ball allowing the ball to arc remarkably into the top corner, giving Reina no chance.
The Reds were undeterred, however, and the pattern of the match resumed, Liverpool penning City in their own half. On 38 minutes came the breakthrough that Liverpool’s play had warranted, Micah Richards adjudged to have handled Dan Agger’s shot in the box, referee Dowd adamantly pointed to the spot. Richards and City complained vehemently about the award, as the ball had deflected from his leg onto his arm. Harsh? Maybe, but his arms were clearly out, and that’s the risk you take. Gerrard stepped up, and despite Hart’s efforts to psyche him out, buried the penalty low down to Hart’s right, in a carbon copy of his first-leg strike. 1-0 at half-time.
Roberto Mancini changed things round at the interval, taking off, the hapless, Savic and replacing him with Aguero, in order to revert to a back four and to give Dzeko some help up front. That done, the pattern of the game barely changed, as Liverpool continued to press for the second goal, Kuyt with a swerving low drive from the edge of the box, which Hart spilled.
Joe Hart was again proving to be City’s man of the match, an athletic tip over the bar to deny Skrtel, followed by a miraculous save low down to thwart Stewart Downing, kept them in the game, and when Dzeko scored in the 65th minute, it looked as if those saves would prove crucial. Kolarov’s break down the left ended with a peach of a cross, which the Liverpool defence were unable to deal with, and Dzeko, arriving on cue, finished from close in. Advantage Manchester City.
City had the upper hand in terms of the score, however, it was Liverpool who were, as they had been since the start, in the ascendency and, roared on by a raucous Kop end, they would not be beaten. The winner came in the 74th minute, some excellent work by Dirk Kuyt, who then picked out Bellamy on the edge of the box, Bellamy played a neat one-two with Glen Johnson, which allowed him the space to open up his body and curl a left footed shot past Hart and into his bottom right hand corner. Bellamy’s goal capped a man of the match performance and will have been sweet revenge for the 32 year-old, against his former manager.
The Welshman’s effort would prove to be decisive, as Liverpool went on to see the game out with few problems. At the final whistle Anfield erupted with joy, the Liverpool players, fans, and staff celebrated buoyantly the team’s first ever trip to the new Wembley stadium.
Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, was full of praise for his team’s performance which he called “magnificent”, and he’ll be looking for them to bring that form into Saturday’s 4th Round FA Cup tie against, fierce rivals, Manchester United. For Roberto Mancini, the City boss, it’s another disappointment to add to their early exits from the Champions’ League and FA Cup, and it’s the manner of the performance over the two legs that will be of major concern. City look light without Kompany, Yaya Toure, and now, Balotelli, Mancini will be desperately hoping that City’s league form doesn’t suffer too badly in their absence.