Dig out those ice-cream vendor suits, Liverpool are back at Wembley. For the first time since that sartorially challenged 1996 FA Cup final trip, Liverpool reached Wembley and the Kop celebrated wildly last night at the prospect of a Carling Cup showdown with Cardiff City on February 26.
It had to be a Welshman who drove Liverpool to the showdown with Cardiff. It had to be Craig Bellamy, on loan at Cardiff last season, also frustrating his old club Manchester City with a vintage performance, scoring the vital goal. Bellamy was exceptional, full of running, even on those creaking knees, returning to haunt Roberto Mancini.
And when the final whistle went, when the Kop twirled their red scarves en masse, Kenny Dalglish held his arms aloft in the familiar manner from his prolific scoring days here. Dalglish's team have had too many home draws this season but this one was greeted with a standing ovation. Liverpool's semi-final record here, where they have lost only one of 31 (against Leeds in the 1971 Fairs Cup), had served them well.
City will rue a controversial penalty decision by Phil Dowd, who deemed Micah Richards guilty of handling when the ball bounced up off his boot, and the absence of Mario Balotelli.
Mancini elected not to appeal against the striker's four-game ban for stamping on Scott Parker. City really could have done with Balotelli in the closing stages as they hammered against Liverpool's back door. Dalglish's men stood firm.
Dalglish had given his team-talk with that stinging rebuke at the Reebok, castigating his players for an expensive lack of respect towards Bolton.
Liverpool's tempo was immediately better here, pouring forward in numbers, midfielders joining the outstanding, front-running Bellamy. Stewart Downing and Jose Enrique both wasted glorious early opportunities as Liverpool tore into City's back-three.
Mancini had never started with wing-backs before, although he has switched to the system in games. Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov worked the flanks, dropping back to assist the triumvirate of centre-halves in Micah Richards, Stefan Savic and Joleon Lescott.
It appeared a cautious approach, partially designed to protect Savic, again a bundle of nerves, and it was no surprise when he was removed at the break. Vincent Kompany cannot return soon enough from his suspension.
Liverpool's captain, Steven Gerrard, was certainly fired up, catching Gareth Barry, much to the Kop's delight and Phil Dowd's displeasure, who booked him.
Liverpool were lively throughout the opening half. Charlie Adam had a right-footed shot saved by the excellent Joe Hart. Yet they always had to beware City on the counter.
Barry broke up one Liverpool attack and released David Silva, who found Kolarov with a superb pass. Kolarov fired across goal, forcing Daniel Agger to clear into the Kop.
As the game inched past the half-hour mark, City stunned Liverpool with a goal. They stunned everyone with the identity of the scorer. Silva slid the ball to Nigel de Jong, who slipped as he made contact but still managed to send the ball scorching past Pepe Reina.
City fans dared to believe. But they could see Liverpool beginning to build again, resuming their attacking towards Hart just in front of them. Liverpool rallied. Adam won a corner off De Jong. Downing was more effective here, embarking on some good runs down the left. Liverpool kept pressing, kept looking to restore their aggregate lead. Their goal arrived, albeit controversially.
From the wreckage of a Liverpool corner, Adam seized on the ball, turned neatly in the box but his shot was cleared by Lescott. The ball travelled only as far as Agger, who had stayed up after the corner. The Dane made a powerful connection and the ball flew goalwards, clipping the outstretched boot of the sliding Richards. The ball flew up and caught his hand, which was slightly raised.
Dowd had no hesitation, pointing immediately to the spot and indicated that Richards had lifted his hands. But there had to be sympathy for the City defender; there was little he could do and his arms appeared to be at the right level for a player sliding and attempting to balance himself.
Hart attempted to put Gerrard off but the Liverpool midfielder kept his composure and concentration, placed the ball on the spot and fired it unerringly home.
As the second half opened, City were totally indebted to Hart, who made an unbelievable tip-over save from Martin Skrtel and then denied Downing from close range.
City weathered the storm, looking better with Sergio Aguero replacing Savic, and then reclaiming the lead. When Kolarov went down the left, Gerrard failed to go with him and the cross was superb, drilled into the six-yard box. Agger failed to go with Edin Dzeko, who put City ahead on the night and level on aggregate.
Back came Liverpool, regaining the initiative when Bellamy and Glen Johnson exchanged passes and the Welshman beat Hart, triggering an explosion of noise on the Kop.
With the clock showing 77 minutes, Mancini twisted again, removing De Jong and sending on Adam Johnson. City were really going for it, seeing time ebbing away.
Silva ran at Liverpool's defence. Johnson sought to find ground down the right. The England winger then cut in from the flank and tried to beat Reina but the Liverpool goalkeeper dropped smartly to save.
Then Dzeko tried his luck, trying to find room down the left but there was Gerrard closing him down. Still City raged against the fading of the light. Somehow Agger dived in to block Dzeko's shot.
Dalglish then removed Bellamy, who departed to a rapturous applause, which intensified at the final whistle. (© Daily Telegraph, London)