The senior citizens, the 31-year-old Steve Gerrard and the 32-year-old Craig Bellamy, set the tone of tigerish aggression and scored the goals that saw off Manchester City in this match, taking Liverpool to a Wembley final for the first time since 1996, but Kenny Dalglish could take encouragement from the performance of the newcomers to his squad, who had been singled out for criticism in the wake of a limp defeat at Bolton Wanderers last weekend.

The greater narrative of English football's leading clubs is beginning to overwhelm its cup competitions. Wednesday night's match at Anfield was the second leg of a Carling Cup semi-final but its significance was vested almost entirely in the individual performance of two teams who are locked in struggles to sustain or restore their credibility over the whole length of the season, with more substantial ambitions than getting their hands on what must be seen, when all is said and done, as a consolatory bauble.

For Liverpool a night of vintage Anfield passion represented a chance to redeem themselves from Saturday's humiliation, after which they received a rare public tongue-lashing from their manager. The instinct of Kenny Dalglish to protect his players from external criticism was overridden by the knowledge that they had fallen below the club's traditional standards of effort and commitment and he was prepared to let the world see his dissatisfaction.

In the privacy of Melwood on Sunday morning he was even fiercer. "He told us as individuals and as a group that it wasn't acceptable," Gerrard reported. "He went through all of us. The manager has been critical to our faces."

The Liverpool captain may have been acting on instructions when he chose to turn the spotlight on the club's four new signings. "There is no good time to perform like that when you play for this club," he said. "You have to win every game. The people new to the club will appreciate and understand that a bit more now after a performance like that."

He was referring to Andy Carroll, bought from Newcastle United a year ago, and to the three summer acquisitions: Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. A total of £70m invested, with 101 appearances between them this season and only eight goals to show for it. While Carroll was left to contemplate the error of his ways on the bench here on Wednesday night, emerging only for the four minutes of added time, the other three were given an immediate and extended opportunity to redeem themselves.

The 21-year-old Henderson had probably been the least culpable of the lot for the team's recent failings, unfailingly bright and willing even when heads were dropping around him, although he was the one who stood to suffer most from the long-term absence of the underappreciated Lucas Leiva, from whose experience he could have learnt much. Here he was pushed forward into the middle of the attacking midfield line, just behind Bellamy, while Downing, whose erratic crossing has been a severe disappointment, was stationed on the left, with the intention of exploiting his stronger foot to get the ball into the box.

Adam, who started the season impressively but faded with the return of Gerrard, lined up alongside the captain at the base of midfield and began well, although it was he who should have been closing down Nigel de Jong when the Dutchman advanced on to David Silva's square pass. Gerrard raced across to cover but a magnificent 25-yard shot was already on its way past Pepe Reina.

But on the whole Dalglish would have been delighted by the way his recruits helped maintain a high tempo – a proper Liverpool tempo, in fact – in support of Bellamy. The Welshman, described by Gerrard as the only player who could be satisfied with his performance against Bolton, was a constant threat to City and an inspiration to his team‑mates in this match.

The coltish Henderson, whose gawky movement can disguise his skill, and Downing both acquitted themselves well but the new boys had nothing to do with Liverpool's equaliser. Daniel Agger heard the crowd's cry of frustration as he played the ball out wide rather than shoot but connected viciously with the return pass as Micah Richards instinctively raised his arms in self-protection. Gerrard dispatched the penalty with his customary cold fury.

Having forced Roberto Mancini to rethink his tactics for the second half, Liverpool conceded again to Edin Dzeko's only effective touch of the night. Dalglish's recruits had demonstrated their fundamental enthusiasm and appetite for the job but now came the real test of their resilience and Bellamy's finely worked goal supplied their response. Twice they had gone behind and twice they had fought back. If they can do something similar on Saturday and dismiss the other Manchester club from the other cup, Anfield will go into orbit.