As fun as it promised to potentially be, Sunday's Wembley semifinal ended up being about as far from fun as possible. Thirty minutes in it seemed like the good times--and a cup final--were on the way, but what unfolded over the next 60-plus minutes dragged the sentiment of the occasion as far down as seemingly possible, and few were left feeling good on the Liverpool side of things. Aston Villa were deserved 2-1 winners, leaving Liverpool with slim top-four hopes to cling to over the final weeks of what suddenly became a campaign without any purpose.
The result was, like so many of Liverpool's disappointments early this season, lacking in energy and urgency, a point Brendan Rodgers was quick to point out in his solemn post-match remarks:
"You can always lose a game, but you'd hope you can play well and give yourself an opportunity. I thought we were second best today, to be honest. They were better than us. We had some chances but Aston Villa were better than us today. There's an obligation here to fight right until the very end. We have come close now in two competitions but failed to make the steps. Hopefully in the future we can learn from that. I think sometimes you can want to win too much and the focus comes away from what allows you to win.
"I thought our energy was low today. Aston Villa had a good start and I felt we were too passive in the game. I had to change the system, it got us some joy, we started to control the game a little bit and then we got in front - but we didn't keep the lead long enough. We were too passive on the side of the field, Fabian Delph skips through way too easily and they got back into the game. Second half, we hoped to play better but we just didn't create enough today. It was a trademark of the team last year - in the first 20 minutes of games, the intensity of our game was very high. Of late, that hasn't quite been the case. We just were nowhere near our level. Congratulations to Aston Villa because they played well and are through to the final. The better team won."
It's hard to argue with any of what Rodgers offers here--without two clear leaders in Mamadou Sakho and Lucas, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson tasked with less effective roles from the start, Lazar Markovic hauled off at the half despite some promising glimpses, and Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho fading in influence as Liverpool's approach shifted to long balls over the top rather than any coherent build-up, Liverpool's "energy" players were nullified from start to finish. Players can be blamed, but the tactics and setup, which once again failed to address the ongoing lack of attacking creativity in the side.
Where Rodgers' critiques veer wide of the mark is, as it so often does, in discussion of Steven Gerrard's performance, which the third-year boss described as "excellent." Little commentary needed here, as it's been discussed plenty already, but one hopes that Rodgers is simply paying lip service to a club legend rather than giving what he feels is an accurate assessment of the captain's contribution.
However he truly saw it, the final conclusion is that both he and his squad need to be far better in the coming weeks. All involved need a strong foundation from which to build for next season, which will hopefully mean that days like today are few and far between.