Coutinho keeps FA Cup dream alive for Liverpool
Blackburn 0 Liverpool 1
Published 09/04/2015 | 02:30
The focus has been on Liverpool 'getting Gerrard to Wembley' but it is Philippe Coutinho who is defining the Merseysiders' cup run.
The twinkle-toed Brazilian must have taken a dislike to the Lancashire accent, or the taste of hotpot. After wrecking Bolton Wanderers' hopes of an upset earlier in the competition, he turned his attention to Blackburn.
Coutinho's strike on 70 minutes ended the resistance of the Championship side in the quarter-final replay, and ensured Liverpool's season - in danger of unravelling after back-to-back Premier League defeats - may yet end in triumph.
It has been a season of many shapes and colours for Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers (below) knew that anything but a trip to Wembley after two attempts at Blackburn would leave the campaign grey and permanently disfigured.
The form team of a fortnight ago arrived at Ewood Park looking anxious and uncertain. The impact of Liverpool's poor performance at Arsenal was the abandonment of the 3-4-3 system that triggered a mid-season revival, another sign the drawing board had taken a hammering in the last 72 hours.
Rodgers' change of system was necessity as much as choice, Emre Can and Martin Skrtel's absence provoking the rethink. Rodgers' defensive issues worsened when Mamadou Sakho suffered a hamstring strain midway through the first half, the dropped Kolo Toure immediately summoned.
Sakho had endured a torrid opening, gifting possession and responsible for Blackburn's two most dangerous moments of the first half. The Frenchman hesitated to allow Crag Conway to pounce on 14 minutes, recovering with a blocked tackle as the midfielder struck for goal.
Sakho had pulled up when Jordan Rhodes headed over on 25 minutes, but these were rare forays in the opening exchanges from the hosts.
As at Anfield, Gary Bowyer was more focused on a containment effort, and assisted by Liverpool's pursuit of meaningful pass in the attacking third, Rovers' plan was being executed.
Rodgers' recent problems have not solely been in defence. He has been seeking a support act for Daniel Sturridge, who has scored goals since his return from injury but been short of form.
In his defence, he's been lacking the kind of support that brought the best from him last season, but too often his touch with his back to goal sees Liverpool moves break down. Not even an early change of boots resolved that problem.
The England striker adopted a shoot on sight policy, but mostly from distance. A dipping left-footer on 19 minutes was as close as he'd come in the first half.
Raheem Sterling and Coutinho demonstrated their light-footedness, but with the Blackburn defence camped in its own box the onus was on midfielders Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson to locate the space. Allen almost did so on six minutes, volleying wide from close range, but he is no finisher.
All the anxieties were with Rodgers as the pattern replicated that of the first meeting. The danger for Liverpool was they were on the verge of bookending their season with the same unfulfilling performances that began it.
Rovers were enjoying their flirtation with a meaningful night at Ewood Park. The 20th anniversary of their Premier League title is upon us, and they wheeled out former assistant Tony Parkes to share his memories.
There have been nothing more than distant echoes of that triumph in East Lancashire in recent times. This was the first time the full house signs had been displayed for four years, and languishing below the play-off places in the Championship, the glory nights in Blackburn have been limited to VHS recordings.
There were still plenty of reminders of Liverpool nightmares in this stadium to revisit on Ewood's giant screen pre-match, however, not least the match that sealed Roy Hodgson's fate in 2011.
Rodgers certainly is not in Hodgson territory yet. Nowhere near, in fact, but having emphasised the importance of winning the first trophy of his reign this season, there must have been times he worried the fates were against.
Bowyer will have sensed an upset as Liverpool's frustration grew, and his side started the second half in a more attacking frame of mind.
Simon Mignolet produced two saves within 60 seconds, first after Tom Cairney's strike from distance and more impressively when Ben Marshall's header needed a firm palm to shove aside
The trouble for Rovers is they looked more vulnerable when they attacked, Liverpool finally spotting openings when defenders lost their protection. Henderson was thwarted on the edge of the penalty just as he looked to strike.
Attacking momentum remained broadly with the visitors, but Bowyer's options from the bench were as invigorating as any Liverpool had to offer.
Rudy Gestede was unfit to start because of a hamstring injury at Leeds last weekend, but he was considered healthy enough to be called upon on 65 minutes. He was welcomed as if Alan Shearer circa '95 himself was entering proceedings, belief swelling in the home stands. The manner in which Gestede bullied the recalled Dejan Lovren out of possession underlined the renewed vigour.
Gestede was clearly a different proposition to Rhodes, who toiled as a lone frontman. But just as Blackburn dreamed of measuring up for Wembley suits, Coutinho pounced. The Brazilian had been struggling to find space on the right flank, often cutting inside, but having been sent clear by Henderson's neat pass he fired across Simon Eastwood to ensure the away end was in full voice.
Sturridge almost added a second, and Sterling wasted tamely over as Rovers started to gamble in pursuit of an equaliser. Goalkeeper Eastwood almost snatched extra-time when he came up for a long throw but his excellent touch and shot was saved by Mignolet. (© Daily Telegraph, London)