The restorative powers of Tim Sherwood know no bounds. A first FA Cup final in 15 years awaits Aston Villa after a team invigorated by the arrival of its new manager two months ago incinerated the script of Steven Gerrard’s dream farewell to Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers was left rummaging for answers amid the ashes.
Villa may have edged away from danger in the Premier League since Sherwood breezed into Villa Park in February but they were relegated to a sideshow in the build-up to this FA Cup semi-final by the focus on Gerrard’s so-called date with destiny on 30 May. A Wembley showpiece on the occasion of the Liverpool captain’s 35th birthday, bidding adieu to a glittering career with another piece of silverware; it seemed pre-ordained.
Instead, Liverpool froze, Rodgers was tactically outwitted by the Villa manager and Fabian Delph plus Jack Grealish were the outstanding midfielders on display.
Sherwood’s side drove into the final against Arsenal with a confident, energetic and stylish performance, a perfectly executed gameplan and the club’s first FA Cup win over Liverpool since the semi-final of 1897. Ron Vlaar shone amid a disrupted defence and Christian Benteke continued his prolific form with a ninth goal in his last seven outings. Delph’s winner early in the second half was deserved on an individual and collective basis.
Liverpool were subdued and anonymous until stirring late on when Gerrard had a header cleared off the line by Kieran Richardson and substitute Mario Balotelli had a goal disallowed for an incorrect offside decision.
Rodgers was submerged in a tactical mess of his own making, ripping up his starting formation after only 25 minutes, changing his forward line at half-time and ending the game with almost every outfield Liverpool player in a different position to where they started.
It was clarity versus confusion, and clarity inevitably won. Rodgers is now the first Liverpool manager since Phil Taylor in the 1950s not to win a trophy in his first three seasons at Anfield and the scrutiny will be intense if, as appears likely, Champions League qualification remains out of reach this season.