Christian Benteke’s renaissance under Tim Sherwood continues apace after the Belgian striker’s bulldozing performance at Wembley helped Aston Villa into the FA Cup final.
Having seen Philippe Coutinho give Liverpool a first-half lead, against the run of play, Benteke ensured his side went into half-time level with his sixth goal in four games.
The Belgian’s then produced an impudent back-heel in the build-up to Fabian Delph’s winner, just reward for an afternoon spent bullying the Reds defence.
Liverpool had few answers to Benteke’s physicality, but Villa were grateful too to brilliant performances from Jack Grealish and captain Fabian Delph, among others.
It means Sherwood will return here with his side on May 30 as they look to win an eighth FA Cup, and pull clear of Liverpool in the process.
The measure of Villa’s early dominance was laid bare as Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers switched to a back four midway through the first half.
It was a necessary change as Benteke, with Charles N’Zogbia and Jack Grealish buzzing around him, was providing Martin Skrtel with an uncomfortable afternoon.
— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) April 19, 2015
N’Zogbia saw a shot on the turn well saved by Simon Mignolet after a crisp Villa passing move, before the Frenchman contrived to squander a two-on-one, picking out Emre Can when it appeared easier to set Benteke clear on goal.
And not even a strong penalty appeal, turned down by Michael Oliver, as Fabian Delph clattered into the back of Raheem Sterling could dissuade Rodgers from readjusting his tactics.
It was a move that appeared to swing the pendulum of the game almost instantly. Villa had lost Nathan Baker to injury, and it was his replacement, Okore who would get the telling touch to deflect Coutinho’s shot past Shay Given.
Liverpool were no longer outnumbered in midfield and swarmed over their opponents, as highlighted by the opener with first Jordan Henderson and then the Brazilian driving into the box.
However, with their width was now being supplied by their full-backs, there was space to exploit in behind and Villa did just that to equalise.
Delph and Grealish worked an opening on the left flank, before the Villa skipper played in a precise cross that Benteke guided expertly past Mignolet in the Liverpool goal.
Rodgers made another change at half-time, bringing on Mario Balotelli for the ineffective Lazar Markovic but the swap did not have the immediate impact of his first.
It was Sherwood’s side who now had the momentum, and less than a minute after Benteke had tested Mignolet they would take the lead.
— Bentekechristian (@bentekechris20) April 19, 2015
The Belgian striker, spotted early by his captain, back-heeled first-time for Grealish who showed awareness beyond his tender years to pick out Delph marauding into the Liverpool box.
Having set the move in motion, Delph then checked back onto his right foot, away from the lunging Dejan Lovren giving him the time to finish past Mignolet.
It was a sublime move, involving Villa’s three stand-out performers on the day, and leaving Liverpool with it all to do.
Indeed it could have been worse for Rodgers’ side had Lovren not produced a brilliant last-ditch tackle to deny Grealish in the area.
The Reds boss was by now a constant presence in his technical area, trying to encourage his team on to an equaliser. And it almost arrived in the closing stages as first Lovren headed over from a corner, before Kieran Richardson had to clear a header from Gerrard off the line.
With time running out Balotellu did put the ball in the back of the net, but he was harshly flagged offside. It would have had been a bitter pill for Sherwood and Villa to swallow, though, had it been allowed to ruin an otherwise flawless afternoon.