Everton 1 Jelavic 24'
A match that ends in the joy of victory over their city rivals and a chance at capturing a second domestic cup shouldn't leave quite so many doubts, but no reflection on how well the day ended for Liverpool can ignore quite how poorly it started. With Andy Carroll finding late redemption for early misses for the second game in a row, Liverpool have secured a place opposite the winner of tomorrow's semi-final between Chelsea and Tottenham, but for Carroll himself—and for the team as a whole—to need that late redemption required much of what came before to be distressingly poor.
In a surprise to many, despite that all four of Martin Skrtel, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, and Jose Enrique were healthy, Jamie Carragher started the day at centre back. It was a move that pushed Agger into a role at left back from where he would offer little width moving forward despite his clear qualities on the ball, while Liverpool's back line was often dragged deep by Carragher's fear of being beaten for pace by Everton's Nikica Jelavic.
Elsewhere, the game marked a return to the starting eleven for Stewart Downing, with Maxi Rodriguez and Craig Bellamy consigned to the bench to make room. And though Downing too found a measure of redemption late in the second half before being taken off in favour of Bellamy, that redemption was earned on the back of an at times painfully ineffective first half that was summed up when, thirty-five minutes into the match, he went tearing off down the left but forgot to take the ball with him.
Meanwhile, along with Maxi being dropped to the bench, Liverpool's strongest mid-week performers each found themselves shuffled to accommodate returning players, with Jordan Henderson once again shifted to the right of midfield where he often looked uncomfortable while defender Sebastian Coates couldn't even make the bench. Despite the head-scratching changes and odd tactical set-up, Liverpool managed to edge the run of play early in what started off a surprisingly open game.
As has often been the case, however, they largely failed to provide a cutting edge to go along with the ball retention, and so it was hardly a surprise the best early chance of the match went to Leighton Baines when he sent a free kick just over the bar six minutes in. It came about after a clumsy Agger tackle as the defender looked out of sorts attempting to defend the wing in the early going, and the shot appeared to have the beating of Jones, but in the end Liverpool escaped the early scare.
The next good chance on goal didn't arrive for nearly fifteen minutes, and when it did it was again Everton's as Leon Osman had the chance to play Jelavic clear on goal as the blues countered off a Liverpool corner. Osman under-hit the ball, and once again Liverpool escaped unscathed, but the break did offer the first major warning sign that Carragher's inclusion could end up a major liability as despite being Liverpool's deepest defender on the corner, by the time Everton's quick attack broke down he found himself well behind the play.
It was a clear signal that Carragher didn't have the speed to keep up with the Everton attackers, and it was a realisation that was met by the Liverpool veteran sinking deeper and deeper in defence, often ending with him five or ten yards behind Liverpool's other defenders any time Everton entered the Liverpool half. I was also a clear signal that Everton had begun to take control of what had until then been a largely even game.
Shortly after Everton's warning shot, it all went wrong for Liverpool and Carragher when the defender drilled a clearance off Tim Cahill. The ball fell to Jelavic, who looked to be fractionally offside on the ricochet, and the Everton striker cooly slotted the ball past Brad Jones. That Jelavic likely was offside on the play, though, cannot excuse Carragher's horrible, panicked decision. And that Liverpool managed to win in spite of his inclusion in the end cannot distract from just what a poor idea it was for Kenny Dalglish to play him despite having the four men who previously made up one of the best defences in the league all fit and available.
When the second half kicked off, Liverpool lined up the same as they had in the first, with Carragher kept on at centre back and Downing remaining on the right after having switched there with ten minutes remaining in the opening period. Despite the lack of tactical adjustments, the players at least seemed far more energetic after the break, with Downing making his first positive impact of the evening when he crossed to Andy Carroll two minutes after the restart. As had been the case against Blackburn on Tuesday, however, the big striker started out the half by missing the target with a free header from six yards.
Immediately following that chance, Jay Spearing had the opportunity to put Suarez clear on goal. Instead, in a mistake even more frustrating than Carroll's, he wildly overhit his pass and the ball went straight to Tim Howard. It capped Liverpool's best spell of the match until that point, but it also signalled the beginning of the end of Liverpool's fight-back, as the players began to fade and once again Everton took a slight edge in play.
It all looked to be leading towards a dull second half with an inevitable late push to equalise from Liverpool, but two-thirds of the way through the game Sylvain Distin gifted Liverpool the tying goal. They didn't look at all likely to create it on their own at the time, but then again Everton hadn't looked sharp enough to score theirs without the help of Jamie Carragher in the first, and when Distin under-hit a back-pass to Tim Howard on sixty-two minutes a lurking Suarez pounced on the opportunity to knock the ball past the outstretched Everton keeper with the outside of his boot.
With the goal, Liverpool's confidence grew noticeably, and in particular Stewart Downing began to have a great deal of success running at the shaken Distin. The match then began to shift even more heavily in Liverpool's favour on seventy-five minutes, when Maxi Rodriguez was brought on in place of Jordan Henderson. Three minutes later, Andy Carroll missed his second good chance of the second half after some neat footwork just outside the Everton area game him space for a shot. The effort didn't measure up to what had come before, but regardless it was an encouraging spell for Liverpool and Carroll.
When Craig Bellamy made his way onto the pitch for Stewart Downing with a little more than five minutes left in regulation time, Liverpool were dominant, only thanks to Distin's mistake they were looking for the win instead of the draw. Their pressure came to a head on eighty-seven minutes when a Bellamy free kick found Carroll in the box. This time, as had been the case on Tuesday when his header in the dying minutes made up for earlier misses and won Liverpool the match, he hit the target. This time, just as in the last match, the ball flew past the goalkeeper's outstretched hand and into the net.
Everton supporters began to stream out before the final whistle, their lack of belief in the possibility of a late comeback confirmed on the pitch as Liverpool now appeared in complete control of the match. It was an exceptionally strong end—an exceptionally strong final twenty or so minutes—to a match that started so very poorly for Liverpool, and it was the second game in a row where Andy Carroll had found late redemption for early misses. It meant a chance for the players and fans to celebrate a third trip to Wembley this season and the chance at a second piece of silverware after six barren years.
Those celebrations are fully deserved, and yet they sit atop a shaky foundation, one that is undermined by many justified concerns over tacts and team selection. The win itself, and the chance granted by it, should certainly be enjoyed. The problems that remain and that were moreover on display for much of the match must not be forgotten or ignored.