As soon as the game had begun, reservations were being aired as to the suitability of a semi-final second-leg at Anfield being the correct stage for radical tactical adjustments. For most viewers, moving Micah Richards infield to accommodate Pablo Zabaleta as a wing-back was questionable. And indeed, never really an attacking force, Zabaleta spent the first-half occupying a kind of no man’s land between right-midfield and right-back.
It was therefore something of a surprise when City took the lead. The destroyer of City’s team, a player who had hitherto scored only once in English football, Nigel De Jong cut a disoriented figure as he received the ball 40 metres from goal. Liverpool’s concentration lapsed; a moment’s complacency. De Jong punished it with a venomous strike which whizzed into the top corner restoring parity over the two legs.
As much as the stunned silence in the Kop owed to the incongruity of such a magnificent De Jong strike, it was borne of sheer shock at an overwhelmed City restoring parity over the two legs. Such was City’s disorganisation, one sensed it was not going to last. And so it proved.
As referee Phil Dowd pointed to the spot, Micah Richards could be seen to ask: “What am I meant to do?” Whilst it is easy to sympathise with the defender, the fact that the handball was accidental is inconsequential. The contact was made and a goal-bound shot was diverted, inadvertent or otherwise. The fact of the matter was that his handball had brought to an end another period of sustained Liverpool pressure. The equaliser, converted adroitly by Steven Gerrard, was richly deserved.
Following the break, Liverpool continued to replicate a coruscating brand of rapid, flowing attacking football which has become the hallmark of their opponents this season. As City struggled to deal with the intensity and imagination of their opponents, it became a battle between the Reds and Joe Hart. A sprawl to his right to claw a Martin Skrtel shot over the bar was the pick of a plethora of wonderful saves. Put simply, he kept the Blues in the tie.
However, with Sergio Aguero introduced, there was at least some lustre to City’s counter attacks. Furthermore, the former Atletico Madrid man had the double effect of reinvigorating the lifeless Edin Dzeko and – such is the contrary nature of the game – it was the lacklustre Bosnian who put Mancini’s men on the verge of a Wembley appearance.
Nevertheless, City never quite settled at the back. The rhythm of Liverpool’s passing continued to erode away at what little resistance the Citizens could pose. No answer could be found to Bellamy’s rapid exchange of passes with Glen Johnson. If Hart was going to be beaten again, it was fitting that the effervescent Welshman was the man to do it. More than any other Liverpool player, his bright movement and link-up play exposed the problems persisting in defence. He deserved to be the man who earned Liverpool’s place at Wembley.
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