Saturday 17 February 2018

Jack's the lad as Villa rip up the script to end Steven Gerrard's Liverpool farewell

Aston Villa 2-1 Liverpool

Fabian Delph scores the winner for Aston Villa at Wembley
Fabian Delph scores the winner for Aston Villa at Wembley
Fabian Delph scores the winner for Aston Villa
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard after the defeat at Wembley

Henry Winter

Tim Sherwood was appointed Aston Villa manager on Valentine's Day and his love affair with his new club intensifies by the day.

As the final whistle at Wembley confirmed Villa's deserved place in the May 30 FA Cup final against Arsenal, Sherwood took off down the touchline, punching the air and beaming at those ecstatic fans wildly shaking their "fight like lions" banners.

What was considered a gamble by Villa on February 14 looks inspired now.

Sherwood is slowly steering Villa away from the threat of relegation, they are playing with more belief and verve, Christian Benteke is transformed, Jack Grealish is a revelation and they have just beaten Liverpool in the FA Cup for the first time since Oscar Wilde was being released from Reading Gaol and Bram Stoker was penning Dracula.

That, too, was a semi-final victory (at Bramall Lane) in 1897 and Villa went on to win the final, vanquishing Everton 3-2 to clinch the double.

Since then, Villa had lost to Liverpool six times in the Cup, without scoring a single goal, but not now, not on Sherwood's watch.

Villa have not reached the FA Cup final since 2000 and not won it since 1957. No wonder Sherwood sprinted off towards the Villa end as Michael Oliver concluded activities.

A highly demonstrative character, Sherwood could not hold the emotion in any longer.

He had stayed calm during the 90 minutes, eschewing celebrations, focusing on making the right changes at the right time.

Some changes were enforced, such as sending on Jores Okore for the injured Nathan Baker, while others were tactical, such as Scott Sinclair replacing Charles N'Zogbia and Joe Cole coming on for the outstanding, but tiring, Grealish.

It also slowed the game just as Liverpool were finally starting to build some momentum late on.

In the other dugout, Brendan Rodgers had kept tweaking his team, dropping the wing-backs, going to a back four, sending on more strikers, withdrawing Steven Gerrard (pictured below) deep, but none of the Liverpool manager's alterations were working. Rodgers was outwitted by Sherwood.

No wonder the Villa manager celebrated passionately afterwards. Sherwood not only got his tactics and substitutions right; he also got the mood right.

Villa showed more desire than Liverpool. His team were shorn of the injured Gabby Agbonlahor, were the 9/2 underdogs and billed as the supporting cast in the great Steven Gerrard farewell drama, but they ran more, wanted it more.

Rodgers, perhaps diplomatically, described Gerrard as "excellent", but the Reds skipper was far from his best.

Wrecking ball

Gerrard's mind may be willing, but the legs are weak and his last game in English football will not be the cup final on his 35th birthday before he departs for LA Galaxy. Not every Hollywood script has a fairy tale ending.

One of the players who has benefited most from Gerrard's England retirement, Fabian Delph, took a wrecking ball to the Merseysider's farewell dream.

Delph was outstanding. He never stopped running until Oliver's last blast, creating Benteke's equaliser riposte to Philippe Coutinho's opener, and then striking the second-half winner.

Grealish provided the assist with a sangfroid that belied his teenage years. Villa fans have long known about Grealish's rich promise. Now the whole of England knows. Roy Hodgson was watching, Gareth Southgate has already been to see Grealish at Bodymoor, and the tug of war between England and the Republic of Ireland over the No 10 with No 40 on his back has moved up a gear.

The oft-maligned Tom Cleverley played an important, unheralded role, working overtime in midfield closing Liverpool players down, not allowing Gerrard and company to settle.

On the eve of his 39th birthday, Shay Given was a rock of ages, having no chance with Coutinho's deflected strike, but otherwise unyielding, including a save from a Gerrard free-kick.

As good as Villa were, Liverpool were poor, lacking a cutting edge, with Raheem Sterling struggling to find space, then Mario Balotelli coming on and failing to trouble Given.

The Italian was unfortunate to be ruled offside when through, but Villa defenders looked to have stopped anyway, having spotted the flag that had been incorrectly raised.

As well as confirming that Emre Can is a midfielder, not a defender, Wembley highlighted that Rodgers needs to strengthen his squad substantially and more judiciously in the summer, attracting better players than during the last close season.

Yet Liverpool are likely to be out of the Champions League with doubts deepening over the future over Sterling, their most-prized asset.

Potential buys need to be shown signs of Liverpool's ambition. Rodgers is a good manager, who has lost Luis Suarez to Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge to frequent injury, but he needs the American co-owners to invest heavily in July.

Villa's American owner, Randy Lerner, is seeking to sell the club, which seems bizarre when the broadcasting revenue increases and when Villa enjoy days such as this with 30,000-plus fans forming mosaics and screaming their support.

In the build-up, Villa fans had been forced to endure all the stories about this being Gerrard's day.

Making his 36th appearance at Wembley, he returned to the Liverpool starting line-up, taking the armband from Jordan Henderson, and taking some boos from the Villa fans, who had neither forgotten nor forgiven a dive of his in front of the Holte End.

After surviving an early scare when N'Zogbia forced Simon Mignolet into a tip-over save, Gerrard's team took the lead on the half-hour.

Coutinho ushered Henderson into the box. Villa managed to regain the ball, but the clearance from Okore was poor and Delph also failed to rectify the damage. Sterling swiftly worked the ball into Coutinho, whose shot took a deflection off Okore's knee and continued past Given.

Villa responded superbly, equalising within six minutes. Delph was the architect, driving forward down the left, linking with Grealish, and taking the return.

His left-footed cross on the run picked out Benteke, who struck his ninth goal in seven matches.

Villa fans were loving it, wafting their claret-and-blue balloons into the air, and waving their banners, one of which read, "Villa, Stella, Balti".

Their team was being fuelled more by pride and adrenaline, none more so than Grealish, whose adhesiveness of touch had Sherwood applauding at one point.

For a player of only 19 years, Grealish exuded a real maturity, taking the occasion in his stride. It must run in the family - his great-great-grandfather Billy Garraty starred when Villa overcame Newcastle United in the 1905 FA Cup final.

Nine minutes into the second half, Grealish awaited the right moment to release the ball in to Delph, who cut inside Dejan Lovren and shot past Mignolet.

Liverpool sought to revive. Coutinho curled in a corner that Gerrard met with a powerful header, but Kieran Richardson cleared off the line.

At the end, Sherwood was off and running. Gerrard's dream was over. Villa's lives on. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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