Manchester City 2 de Jong 31', Dzeko 67'
"Would it be a risk to play defensively?" the reporter asked Kenny Dalglish as Liverpool prepared to face Manchester City at Anfield in the second leg of the League Cup semi-finals.
"Well," said Dalglish, "we won't play defensively."
"Because you're at home?" asked the reporter.
"Because we're Liverpool," said Dalglish.
After a dull and uninspired performance against Bolton on the weekend, and following on from one of the most conservative and defensive displays by a Liverpool side in recent years while eking out a narrow one-nil advantage from the first leg of the semi-final, it wasn't entirely unfair for those looking on to wonder just how Liverpool planned to deal with the league leaders. And with a teamsheet containing many of the same names in midfield as the one that had recently shown so little fight against Bolton in the league, it was equally fair to wonder just how this struggling Liverpool side would survive for ninety minutes if City were fired up for the match.
In the end, Craig Bellamy putting in one of the best performances by a Liverpool player this season, strong showings from reliable big-game players like Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt, and a lucky bounce or two would all help to propel Liverpool past Manchester's big spenders with a performance that deserved more than the final scoreline. On the day, though, that the two-two draw flattered City and once again spoke to Liverpool's inability to put their chances away mattered little, with Liverpool now set to make the trip to Wembley on aggregate.
"What did you think of the penalty?" asked a reporter after the match.
"What do you mean?" asked Dalglish.
"The handball," said the reporter.
"Exactly," said Dalglish.
It seemed to all be going wrong for Liverpool just after thirty minutes into the first half, when a pair of Charlie Adam blunders and a screamer from Nigel de Jong put City ahead in the game and drew them level on aggregate. Up to that point, the inclusion of Jordan Henderson in a midfield trio and Steven Gerrard curbing his attacking instincts to take up a more defensive role had gone a long way to shoring up Liverpool in the centre of the park after a shaky showing against Bolton had led to Dalglish calling out the players' work rates and attitude. Adam had put in a number of poor tackle attempts and given the ball away cheaply repeatedly in the early going, but the players around him had ensured that Liverpool hadn't yet been punished by a City side that had more possession than the hosts but showed little cutting edge.
That all changed in the 31st minute when Adam turned the ball over to City and then went charging off after it. The problem was that in doing so, he deserted his part of the pitch to double up on a man already well covered by Gerrard, and when the ball then popped out to de Jong where Adam had been standing seconds earlier the City destroyer was given the time he needed to uncork a rocket from distance that flew past Reina and into the top corner. Even more damning was that after leaving his side of the field deserted, Adam showed little determination to get back and close down de Jong, instead leaving it for the more distant Gerrard to try to deal with
Still, if Adam deserves damning for City's opener, he also deserves praise for Liverpool's first when he collected the ball towards the right of the penalty area off a corner, dipped his shoulder and created the space he then moved into, and chipped the ball to Daniel Agger in the middle. Agger's shot tipped off the boot of a sliding Micah Richards and ricocheted up to strike his elbow—and Phil Dowd pointed to the spot. There isn't a fan who wouldn't have considered it an injustice had it gone against Liverpool instead, but when Gerrard slotted the ensuing penalty home the resulting scoreline was the least Liverpool deserved after peppering the City goal throughout the first half.
"What did you think of Bellamy's performance tonight?" asked the reporter.
"If they've got another player like him they don't want," said Dalglish, "I hope they've got my number."
It wasn't just that Liverpool had once again been wasteful in front of goal, as without Joe Hart it's likely that City would have found themselves down by a goal or three and out of the tie early. He stopped Jose Enrique when the ball dropped to the fullback at the edge of Hart's six yard box. He sprawled to block Stewart Downing when Dirk Kuyt lofted a cross to the midfielder standing unmarked at the back post. He stopped a Martin Skrtel shot sailing towards the top corner from the penalty spot. In short, he stopped just about anything that came near him—and more than his share of anything that didn't.
When Edin Dzeko converted City's second shot on target into their second goal of the evening after 67 minutes, it was Hart who appeared certain to receive man of the match honours for almost single-handedly dragging his side past a far more dangerous looking Liverpool and into the finals. Craig Bellamy, however, had other ideas, and the firey, tireless striker who had been charging at City's defense all evening finally beat England's best keeper from open play—Liverpool's first and only such goal of the two-legged tie.
After City allowed him to move to Liverpool on a free in the summer, the man who has turned out to be Liverpool's best—and cheapest—signing of the last transfer window had sunk his former club, and when he left the pitch after 87 minutes it was to a well deserved standing ovation from a grateful stadium. Then it was back to packing their own penalty area as they had at the Etihad, Liverpool defending as a team to repel City's last-gasp effort to force extra time by evening up the aggregate scoreline. And, after a nervy few minutes, the final whistle blew: On the back of stellar performances from Gerrard, Henderson, Agger, and—especially—Craig Bellamy, Liverpool will make their first ever trip to the new Wembley to face Cardiff in the League Cup final.