Liverpool 0 (6)
Stoke 1 (5) Arnautovic 45'
For the second time in the competition, Liverpool turn to their goalkeeper for the necessary heroics to pull them through, and ultimately make it to Wembley in Jürgen Klopp's first season.
Liverpool came out to a roaring Anfield in a 4-3-3, with Jon Flanagan and Adam Lallana replacing Nathaniel Clyne and Jordon Ibe as the only changes from the weekend. And while the crowd started loud and rambunctious, the sloppy, imprecise football on display soon quieted them. With the exception of a beautiful YNWA on the 12th minute in memory of Owen McVeigh, a young fan who passed away from leukemia in December, not much happened in the first 45. There was intensity and pressing and running and harrying, but little in the way of accuracy or imagination or cutting edge, and both teams were forced to shoot from distance, with Jonathan Walters wide shot from a narrow angle the sole exception.
Stoke took the lead in injury time of the first half, tying the aggregate score. Alberto Moreno rushed into, and lost, a challenge in midfield, leaving the entire left flank open to Bojan, who pounced on Walters' lobbed through ball and played in Marko Arnautovic. The Austrian made no mistake alone with Simon Mignolet, but he was a solid yard offside, and the home side were rightly aggrieved at the linesman's poor decision.
The Reds came out with more fire in the second half, and immediately went close to pulling one back, as Roberto Firmino hit the near post with a volley after some quick thinking from Jordan Henderson. Fire wasn't enough, though, and the sloppiness continued, with the home side giving up possession cheaply again and again.
Mamadou Sakho sandwiched a clownshoes moment involving a bouncing ball in the box between two terrific last-ditch challenges to block shots from Walters. Christian Benteke came on for Henderson and displayed both arm-waving and infuriating lack of movement, as well as some neat playmaking, as he slid a beautiful diagonal ball through for Flanagan, whose low cross was cut out at the last moment by Jack Butland.
Liverpool were applying a bit of pressure now, and minutes later, a floated Moreno cross fell at the feet of Flanagan five yards out, but the young full-back couldn't shuffle his feet in time, and the chance went begging.
Five minutes from time, the home side should've arguably had a penalty, as a cross from the right hit Erik Pieters outstretched arm in the Stoke box, but the ref decided against the call. The match was headed into extra time.
The first half in extra time was a back and forth affair, with Firmino forcing a save from Butland after a nice layoff from Benteke, before Marco van Ginkel hit the post on the other end following a knockdown from the alpine Peter Crouch.
Sakho started the second half in extra time by trying to get the crowd going, and the energy from the much-vaunted 12th man was markedly better for the final fifteen minutes, even as players on both sides began to fade hard. Mignolet finally got his hands warm with a save from another van Ginkel volley, before a steady period of pressure from the home side closed out extra time.
For the second time this season, Liverpool got to test their penalty boots, and with Emre Can's hammered effort bouncing off the post the lone exception, they delivered. Mignolet made two terrific saves, setting up Joe Allen to be the hero. The Welsh Pirlo took his depression beard and alice band, buried his penalty in the top corner, and that was that.
A pair of largely unimpressive performances, then, in what has been a largely unimpressive cup run - the hammering of Southampton notwithstanding - brings Liverpool into the Capitol One Cup Final. Flanagan will rightly get the plaudits for putting in this sort of performance after such a long time out, as he mostly kept Arnautovic quiet throughout the match, looking an option at right back at just the right time. Sakho was a massive part of keeping Stoke to one goal with two crucial blocks, keeping up well with the aerial threat of Peter Crouch, and helping build Liverpool's attacks with a solid passing display. Adam Lallana and Firmino are showing signs of an understanding, but clearly lack a mobile attacker in front of them to be really effective. Lucas Leiva made crucial tackles in midfield and again deputized well at centre-back when Kolo Toure came off.
On the other hand, Moreno had another blip of a performance, with positioning errors creating two of Stoke's biggest chances. The passing in midfield from Henderson, Can and James Milner was dreadful all night, as they kept giving the ball away cheaply. Benteke continued to do Benteke things when he came on, with glimpses of excellent feet and physical play intercut with images of the big man standing around waving his arms while play passed him by.
A mixed bag, all in all, and Wembley awaits. Whether Manchester City or Everton are the opposition will be decided tomorrow, with the Toffees holding a slender lead going into the second leg. Regardless, players and managers alike will be looking forward to the opportunity to collect some silverware in an otherwise uneven season.