LONDON – There was a point here when the heat of the battle had brought the two managers together on the touchline, one-time colleagues and friends straying dangerously close to a full-on confrontation. That clash between JosÃ© Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers seemed emblematic of a thrillingly spiky night when Chelsea reached Wembley, the undercurrent of bad feeling between the two teams frequently spilled into open combat and Diego Costa went far enough the Football Association may feel compelled to act.
It was a breathless encounter full of incident and drama, including some outstanding goalkeeping from Thibaut Courtois and Simon Mignolet, and probably encapsulated by the way Mourinho did not even see the decisive goal from Branislav Ivanovic, four minutes into the first period of extra time, because the Chelsea manager had turned his back to the pitch for one of his regular little expeditions to air his grievances with the fourth official, Phil Dowd.
It was after one of those forays, gesturing that the referee, Michael Oliver, needed spectacles, that Rodgers grumpily intervened and used his arm to lever the Chelsea manager away, before opposite number flicked out his own arm in retaliation. Mourinhoâ€™s little black book of perceived injustices â€“ some credible, others much less so â€“ has some new additions because of the way Costa was denied an obvious first-half penalty and two of Liverpoolâ€™s players, Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva, escaped being shown a second yellow card.
Henderson might have taken the game to a penalty shoot-out with a headed chance eight minutes after Ivanovicâ€™s goal and the awkward truth for Michael Oliver is that even in a season rife with inexplicable refereeing, his performance stood out for all the wrong reasons.
Not that the players helped, of course. John Terry and the substitute Mario Balotelli had to be pulled apart. Martin Skrtel clashed with Courtois and had a running battle with Costa, with reports also indicating the Liverpool player made an offensive gesture to the crowd. Costa, that formidable wind-up merchant, went after Emre Can and Steven Gerrard â€“ anyone, in fact, wearing a red shirt. His provocation was almost unremitting but more seriously there were two incidents when his studs landed on players who were on the ground â€“ on both occasions almost certainly accidentally on purpose.
Costa is so accomplished in the dark arts of his trade that he managed to get away with the first one, stamping on Canâ€™s ankle, even though Dowd was standing a few feet away. The second was also expertly disguised, this time bringing down his foot on Skrtel, and the repercussions could be considerable if the FAâ€™s disciplinary department rules either was violent conduct, with the possibility of a three-match ban or even longer, and a first-against-second encounter with Manchester City to come on Saturday.
Mourinho, who also lost Cesc FÃ bregas and Filipe LuÃs to injuries, appeared to be trying a diversion technique when he complained bitterly about an unnamed Sky pundit (almost certainly Jamie Redknapp), insisted it was â€œabsolutely accidentalâ€ from Costa and then aimed a few barbs at Rodgers in a diatribe that revealed much about the current state of their working relationship. He did, however, have legitimate complaints about the refereeing and particularly the moment in the first half when Skrtel clearly tripped Costa inside the penalty area and was given the benefit of the doubt. Once again, the Chelsea manager talked of the â€œcampaignâ€ that has earned him his own disciplinary charge from the FA.
In addition, there was a punch of the air in his post-match interviews and a cry of â€œletâ€™s go to Wembleyâ€. It seemed like a release of tension bearing in mind Liverpool had continued where they left off from the first leg, when they had often excelled in a 1-1 draw, passing the ball crisply and reminding us in brief passages of the slick, adventurous football they put together last season. What the visitors lacked was someone with Luis SuÃ¡rezâ€™s ability to finish off one of their chances when they were finding the same sort of gaps that Bradford City had exploited at the weekend. Coutinhoâ€™s ability to run with the ball was a prominent feature and Raheem Sterling was another difficult opponent for Chelseaâ€™s defence. Yet Courtois was excellent and when Balotelli was introduced as a substitute it was a sorry contribution from the Italian.
Otherwise, Liverpoolâ€™s attackers made it a difficult occasion for Kurt Zouma on a night when Mourinho decided the 20-year-old should partner Terry and dropped Gary Cahill to the bench after a poor sequence of matches. Mikel John Obi, substituted against Bradford, did not even warrant a place on the bench but it was Cahillâ€™s omission that delivered the clearest message that Mourinho was not going to tolerate his team being so generous in defence again. Zouma improved as the game went on but he looked raw early on and by half-time Chelsea were indebted to Courtois for keeping out Coutinho and Alberto Moreno.
Mourinho must have been startled that Mignolet was less occupied in the first 45 minutes but Chelsea did eventually start to play with the greater control and dominated long periods of the second half. Mignolet has been too vulnerable too often for Liverpool this season but there was a succession of fine saves during these moments, in particular when Costa fired in a low right-foot effort that took a sizeable deflection and could easily have wrong-footed him.
Henderson, booked for an earlier foul, should probably have been sent off when his arm blocked a pass from Eden Hazard and Lucas, with a yellow card already shown, was also fortunate after a trip on the same player. From the free-kick, Willian clipped the ball into the penalty area and the bad news for Liverpool was that Balotelli was marking Ivanovic. It was a mismatch and Ivanovic headed in the goal to ensure Chelsea will be at Wembley on 1 March. – The Guardian