Philippe Coutinho capitalised on some poor Villa defending to give the Reds the lead in the first half, but Benteke responded almost immediately for Villa, and the excellent Fabian Delph scored what turned out to be the winner early in the second half.
The response that Liverpool managed to muster was embarrassingly meagre, and the Midlanders quite comfortably held out to secure a deserved victory and book their place in the final against Arsenal in May. Liverpool’s season, meanwhile, is effectively over, after Manchester City’s 2-0 victory over West Ham in the Premier League yesterday afternoon moved them seven points clear in fourth.
Emre Can, Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard all made immediate returns to the starting line-up following suspension, the first two forming a back three with Dejan Lovren and the skipper, starting for the first time in 13 matches, flanking Raheem Sterling with Philippe Coutinho. The other major team news saw Daniel Sturridge miss out altogether, as the perennially injury plagued England international didn’t even make the bench at Wembley.
The opening exchanges were fairly even, with both sides passing neatly and having sights of goal. For Liverpool, Allen and Henderson shot wide, while Villa’s N’Zogbia fired a left footed shot towards the top corner that forced Mignolet to tip over the bar.
A key moment came on 26 minutes, when injured Villa centre back Nathan Baker had to be replaced by Jores Okore. Not yet up to speed with the contest, Okore was at fault for Coutinho’s opener, as Villa’s backline repeatedly spurned opportunities to clear their lines, allowing the Brazilian magician to weave his way into the box before curling past Given.
|Coutinho's goal was the highlight of a disappointing afternoon|
Importantly, Liverpool’s lead did not last long, as, within five minutes, the on-form Benteke levelled with his sixth strike in Villa’s last seven games. Delph broke down the left wing and, with Markovic and Can nowhere to be seen, Skrtel was pulled out of position. This allowed Benteke plenty of room to receive Delph’s cutback and side-foot past Mignolet.
|Benteke equalised almost immediately|
Liverpool did have a couple more chances to reclaim the lead before the break, Lovren heading wide from Gerrard’s corner after Coutinho’s shot had been deflected over, but the momentum and belief seemed to be with Villa.
This was demonstrated by their rapid start to the second half, which began with N’Zogbia shooting off target and Mignolet gratefully collecting Benteke’s deflected shot, but ended with Delph and Benteke combining once again to put Sherwood’s side ahead.
Delph played Benteke in behind the Liverpool defence, and he back-heeled the ball to Grealish, who in turn released Delph in the penalty area. The 25-year old midfielder cut inside Lovren and fired past Mignolet to deservedly give Villa the lead.
|Delph, Villa's star man, bagged the winner|
Apart from that, Liverpool did precious little to suggest that they were going to fight their way back into the match and, as the minutes dwindled down; many Kopites became increasingly nervous that the expected final push would fail to materialise. Their fears proved well founded.
Crucially, the players that you would expect to step up to the plate in big moments in big games like these were nowhere to be seen. Henderson was anonymous, as was Sterling, whose effective absence from proceedings yesterday makes his wage demands seem increasingly farcical.
Coutinho was also disappointingly quiet after opening the scoring and, although I held out hopes of a late Gerrard rescue to roll back the years, my faith proved hopelessly blind and optimistic; the skipper is a fading star, and his semi-final no-show proved it.
Lovren and Balotelli headed over in the closing stages, while Gerrard also saw Richardson clear his header off the line, but, apart from long balls into the box and headed efforts from set pieces, Liverpool produced little to seriously worry their opponents.
The afternoon was summed up by Dejan Lovren in the third of four minutes of injury time. The ball came to him 40 yards out and he had two options; one, he could have put the ball back into the box where the majority of Liverpool’s players were or, two, he could have played a simple five yard pass to Gerrard, who would have a much better chance of scoring a last gasp worldie from range. Instead, the £20 million signing from Southampton blasted high, wide and handsome into the stands.
|Season over: Liverpool's players are inconsolable on the final whistle|
Liverpool can have no complaints, though; Villa were the better team on the day and the Reds just didn’t show up when it really mattered, as has been the case far too many times during what has been a frustratingly up and down season.