The first Merseyside Derby at Wembley since 1989 was always going to be a close affair. Everton entered the game as the form side, having thrashed Sunderland 4-0 at Goodison in their most recent league fixture, but, as many claimed, form counts for nothing in a derby match. Despite the Blues sitting a point above their rivals in the Premier League, Liverpool had won both league meetings between the two. This game was impossible to call.
Each manager made a noteworthy omission from their starting line-ups: Everton’s Dutch winger Royston Drenthe failed to even make the bench amid rumours of late-night drinking the day before, while Anfield supremo Kenny Dalglish preferred Daniel Agger, more comfortable in the middle of the defence, at full-back instead of first-choice left-back Jose Enrique.
After a respectful one-minute silence to mark the 23rd anniversary of Hillsborough, the referee’s whistle was greeted with a cacophony of noise from both sets of fans. The action was end-to-end from the start – Leighton Baines curled a free-kick narrowly over before Martin Skrtel fired straight at Howard following a corner. The teams were doing a good job of cancelling each other out, making for compelling viewing.
Despite this, clear chances were few and far between, and it was a surprise when Everton took the lead after 24 minutes. After hesitation between Liverpool defenders Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, the latter’s low clearance rebounded off Tim Cahill and into the grateful path of in-form striker Nikica Jelavic. With the rest of Liverpool’s defence having turned their backs on the ball, expecting Carragher’s clearance to sail over their heads, Jelavic found himself one-on-one with Brad Jones. The Croat kept his nerve to slide the ball past the onrushing Aussie with a cool finish.
Predictably, the goal caused pandemonium in the Everton end as the Toffees dreamt of an improbable run to the final. As if the defensive mishap leading to the goal wasn’t galling enough for Liverpool fans, the sight of Jelavic wheeling away in delight in front of the massed ranks of red must have hurt.
As Liverpool battled for an equaliser, the full-blooded challenges that began to rain in were inevitable in a derby of such importance to both teams. However, it was more than slightly ironic that, with local players Carragher, Gerrard, Baines and Osman all involved, the most hotly-contested one-on-one battle in this Merseyside matchup was between a Uruguayan and a Dutchman. Messrs Suarez and Heitinga took it in turns to bundle each other to the floor, each becoming increasingly incensed at the other’s perceived exaggeration of contact.
Thankfully, a combination of Howard Webb ignoring both of them and a word in the ear from their captains calmed the pair down. The remainder of the first half failed to produce such excitement, as Everton saw out the closing minutes of the opening 45 to protect their narrow lead until the interval.
The second half was always going to be more nerve-racking for the Everton fans, as Liverpool committed more men forward in their search for an equalizer. Just two minutes after the break they almost had it. Stewart Downing, whose mazy runs had looked threatening in the first half but often lacked a final product, whipped a deep cross to the back post where Andy Carroll headed wide despite being unmarked.
It was a wake-up call for Everton, and one that they took on board. The next fifteen minutes passed without incident as Liverpool struggled to break down a deep, determined defence. Everton weren’t creating chances, but as long as they kept Liverpool at bay, it didn’t matter.
Then, on 62 minutes, disaster struck for the Blues. Distin, a defensive rock all season, buckled under pressure from Suarez and gifted the Uruguayan a clear run at goal with a woefully under-hit back-pass. Despite Heitinga’s admirable effort to recover the situation, Suarez was already dispatching the ball beyond Tim Howard as the Dutchman desperately tried to slide in. Distin was clearly upset by his error, cruelly the first time he has put a foot wrong this season. His apology on Twitter hours later summed up his guilt: “I cost my team mates, the staff, the club and the fans a place in [the] FA Cup final. Nothing more to say but sorry all of you”. The big Frenchman bravely accepted responsibility for his side’s eventual defeat, despite his mistake only leading to Liverpool’s leveller.
With the game now finely poised at one apiece, Everton manager David Moyes had a tactical dilemna – push men forward in hope of retaking the lead, or hold on for extra-time against a Liverpool team growing in confidence and with the momentum now behind them?
The Scot seemingly chose the latter as his men remained firmly behind the ball, leaving goalscorer Jelavic an isolated figure. The introduction of Seamus Coleman for Distin’s tiring compatriot Magaye Gueye provided fresh legs, but the new man was forced into defensive duty almost immediately. His booking soon afterwards, for a challenge on the edge of the Everton area as his team-mates failed to clear, put the Irishman on a tightrope.
Liverpool continued to dominate with little reward, and as both sets of fans and players braced themselves for the prolonged agony of extra-time and penalties, Coleman upended Gerrard on the left. It was a clumsy tackle that was lucky to avoid a red card less than 20 minutes after the Everton winger’s arrival.
However, the cheap free-kick would prove to be vital in the outcome of the match. Substitute Craig Bellamy crossed, and for the first time in the match, Carroll hit the target with a back-header after outjumping Fellaini. The flick passed between Howard and Baines, stationed on the far post, and into the net. With just three minutes of normal time remaining, it was surely the winner. Carroll’s previous efforts in the game had brought little reward, causing even some Everton fans to feel sorry for the perpetually-misfiring £35 million misfit.
His previous lack of composure in front of goal was immediately forgotten as the Reds celebrated a new hero who had fired them to a second Cup final of the season. Despite Everton’s best attempts to push forward, with Moyes replacing defender Baines with frontman Victor Anichebe, Liverpool successfully wound down the clock. They even went close to extending their lead, with Maxi Rodriguez, another substitute, hitting the post from close-range under heavy pressure.
The final whistle was met with jubilation by the scarf-branishing Kop, transplanted from Anfield, and their victorious players. Everton’s team crumpled to the turf, hurt by the realization that for some of them, this was the last chance for silverware before retirement. Captain Phil Neville is 35, Distin 34, Tim Cahill and Tim Howard both the wrong side of 30 – they may not experience another Wembley semi-final. The defeat will inevitably inspire pundits to debate whether or not David Moyes has taken the club as far as he can. The truth is that only the former Preston boss himself knows the answer.
Everton: Howard, Neville (C), Heitinga, Distin, Baines (Anichebe 88), Osman, Gibson, Fellaini, Gueye (Coleman 68), Cahill, Jelavic. Subs not used: Hahnemann, Hibbert, Jagielka, Stracqualursi, McFadden.
Liverpool: Jones, Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Agger, Henderson (Rodriguez 75), Gerrard, Spearing, Downing (Bellamy 84), Carroll, Suarez. Subs not used: Gulasci, Enrique, Kelly, Shelvey, Kuyt.
Attendance: 87, 231.