Three shots on target in the opening 11 minutes dispelled any doubts over Liverpool's response to the abysmal performance at Bolton Wanderers on Saturday and the subsequent public condemnation from Kenny Dalglish. Not that there should have been motivation required for a semi-final on home soil and with a first appearance at Wembley in 16 years the prize. "You cannot paint a pretty story if there is not one to be painted," the Liverpool manager reiterated on the eve of the game, and here the penny had clearly dropped as Craig Bellamy continued from his effervescent display at the Reebok Stadium – the only one from a player in red – and the rest belatedly followed.
It would be a great shame if, as Mario Balotelli's agent has warned, City's headline generator takes his talents, T‑shirts and fireworks away from English football but, as the agent should perhaps be advising, he has no one but himself to blame for missing this semi-final as a result of the stamp on Scott Parker on Sunday. Far from being victimised, Balotelli has let the club down at a critical stage and left Roberto Mancini with only two established forwards for four games. As a result, and despite needing two goals to go through, the City manager elected to put his best, Sergio Agüero, on the bench here. It was not exactly a snub to the Carling Cup as an act that backs up everything Mancini has been saying this season – it is all about the title.
The protection policy on Agüero could only last so long with Edin Dzeko labouring throughout the first half and Samir Nasri hardly in the game when played off the Bosnian. Dzeko scored 15 goals in his first 18 games for club and country this season and had only one in his previous 15 appearances before converting City's second. Agüero's introduction at the break raised the question of whether it would have been better to establish a lead and then rest the Argentinian. Less of a debate was the failure of Mancini's surprise ploy to start the match with a three-man defence, and to use the raw Stefan Savic in the centre of the trio. It was rightly dispensed with at half-time too and City were improved at both ends of the pitch.
It did not require a lip-reading expert to understand Micah Richards's line of complaint as he left the field at half-time. "But what do you want me to do?" he asked Phil Dowd several times and the match referee repeatedly stressed that, with arms raised so high as he threw himself at Daniel Agger's low shot, he had no choice but to give the penalty that swung the momentum of this semi-final back in Liverpool's favour. Richards certainly had a point. The ball struck his leg first, then flew up onto his arm, but with the defender's arms raised it would have been more of a surprise had Dowd denied Liverpool's appeals. After the four-match bans for Vincent Kompany and Balotelli, both sorely missed here, City will argue the big calls are not going their way.
Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, José Enrique and Charlie Adam all started for Liverpool while Andy Carroll stayed on the bench until the 90th minute. Again, however, the best performer among their summer recruits was Craig Bellamy, signed on a free transfer from Manchester City on deadline day and who left the field to a standing ovation having scored the goal that secured Liverpool's a place in the final against Cardiff City, another of his former clubs. Bellamy was the only player to escape criticism for the 3-1 defeat against Bolton and was inspirational here, defying the years and the theory that he cannot start two games in quick succession. His movement and will to win proved infectious and, for all the criticism of his character, it should be noted he apologised to the City end after his crucial goal.