Aston Villa 2: Benteke 36', Delph 54'
Liverpool 1: Coutinho 30'
And so it ends. Liverpool's season, which had taken a three-month hiatus from providing a perverted fairytale ending for Steven Gerrard and ushered in a wonderful run of results, reverts to type at the worst possible time, with Aston Villa running out deserved winners at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. A brief mention for the victors, who really were excellent on the day when it came to exploiting Liverpool's weaknesses. Tim Sherwood set his side up well, and they weathered the brief storm that saw Liverpool go in front, and by the time the second half rolled around, there only looked to be one winner in the match. Well played to them, and their spot in the final is more than justified on today's performance.
Back to the suck, and while there will be time for it to be heartbreaking, to feel sad about what could have been, and to miss Liverpool's long-serving captain, right now it's awfully hard to feel anything other than disappointment in Liverpool and, more importantly, Brendan Rodgers.
Rodgers' hand was nudged in an unproductive direction with the revelation that Lucas was injured midweek, but in truth, few would have been surprised had Rodgers selected Gerrard in front of the Brazilian anyway. Their fates have been intertwined for most of Rodgers' tenure, and today was perhaps the most inexplicable turn in their dysfunctional relationship. Level at 1-1, having already been overrun for most of the first half, Rodgers put his captain at the base of the midfield, the position that was so key in Liverpool getting off to their worst start to a season in 50 years.
The results were immediate, with Villa midfielders getting in behind and exploiting space between Liverpool's midfield and back line twice within the first five minutes. As a choice to improve the match, it was suicidal, and one that ultimately led to Villa's winner. Rodgers' side had, as mentioned, been poor up to that point, but opting to change formation for the third time in a match to literally the worst tactical setup they have employed all season was inexcusable.
Liverpool had maybe one or two positive moves going forward the entire day, a remnant of another major sticking point in a Liverpool season that's had many, otherwise relying on hopeful hoofs forward throughout the match, turned up to eleven when they were chasing an equalizer. Unsurprisingly, it rarely threatened the Villa defense, and on the lone occasion that it could have, Mario Balotelli was incorrectly ruled offside. Poor decision from the linesman, but Liverpool deserve nothing from a match that saw any sort of impetus disappear as it wore on.
Questions need to be asked about both players and manager, with all involved culpable. Few can emerge with any sort of credit here; Balotelli was positive--at times too much so given the frequency with which he was whistled offside--during the second half, Coutinho showed glimmers of hope in the first, Henderson was energetic throughout, Simon Mignolet solid when called upon, and Dejan Lovren continued to claw his way up to a passably average level at the back. But it's hard to feel good about anyone or anything, really, with Liverpool's season effectively ended.
Hardest is the prospect of trying to reconcile the performance of one of the club's greatest ever players, in a competition with which many of his positive qualities have made their mark over the years, asked to complete an impossible task by a manager who has been far too intimidated by his legend to do what's needed. Gerrard lacked the legs to do the job further forward and doesn't have the discipline or ability to be effective in a deeper role.
He was always going to play 90 minutes, and his performance was one of preservation and caution rather than the forcefulness and energy with which he's long been associated. Those calling for Gerrard to be given a substitute's role on the day, regardless of who else was or wasn't available, saw it coming. It's just a shame that Brendan Rodgers either didn't, or, even worse, chose to ignore it.
Now Liverpool have six days to collect themselves before heading to West Brom, and six days for Rodgers to get his squad playing for the future rather than to try to preserve the memory of Steven Gerrard. Continuing down that path only serves the opposite purpose, and could very well end his Liverpool career around the same time as Gerrard's wraps up.