LONDON – Liverpool’s FA Cup talisman Philippe Coutinho worked his magic again to defeat Blackburn Rovers and set up a semi-final meeting with Aston Villa at Wembley.
The mercurial Brazilian scored a spectacular late winner in Liverpool’s fourth-round replay win at Bolton and broke the deadlock at Ewood Park with 20 minutes left to put Brendan Rodgers’s side into the last four.
It was a performance short on quality from Liverpool in a quarter-final replay played out on a scruffy surface but all that mattered was the victory required to keep hopes of success alive this term after successive Premier League losses to top four rivals Manchester United and Arsenal had damaged their hopes of a place in next season’s Champions League.
Rodgers insists the Reds can still make the top four – but the FA Cup remains the more realistic success and would be his first trophy in his third season in charge at Anfield.
Liverpool endured a night of hard toil in the face of a stirring challenge from Gary Bowyer’s Championship side, who earned this second chance with a goalless draw at Anfield last month and will feel hard done by to have not earned a place at Wembley.
And the Premier League side were indebted to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet for two outstanding saves early in the second half from Tom Cairney and Ben Marshall – then even more dramatically in the closing seconds as he stopped his opposite number Simon Eastwood from forcing extra time as he came up for a corner.
Liverpool produced the moment of class that mattered when Coutinho exchanged passes with Jordan Henderson before driving in from the angle in front of the elated travelling support massed into Ewood’s Darwen End.
The victory will ease the disappointment of those two crucial losses and Rodgers will hope it provides fresh impetus for the final seven league games of the season as Liverpool prepare to face Villa on Sunday, 19 April.
On a pitch that hardly lent itself to quality, it was an optimistic long punt forward that created the first opportunity, Mamadou Sakho’s confusion almost letting Craig Conway in before the Frenchman recovered to rescue his own mistake.
Sakho’s evening was about to be cut short by a hamstring injury and Rovers almost took advantage when he struggled to mark Jordan Rhodes in the area but the striker headed off target from Conway’s dangerous delivery. The France international was immediately replaced by Kolo Toure.
Liverpool enjoyed plenty of possession but did little with it and Eastwood’s only moment of serious concern came when he clawed Coutinho’s effort around the post.
Blackburn, encouraged by how they had contained the Reds, started on the front foot after the break and Mignolet was called into action to save athletically from Cairney then low to his left from Marshall’s header.
Rovers cult hero Rudy Gestede was unable to start because of a slight hamstring problem but Ewood Park rocked as he was introduced for Conway after 64 minutes, instantly creating an opening for Rhodes that came to nothing.
It was the visitors who finally made the breakthrough, though as Coutinho rounded off a one-two with Jordan Henderson by hitting a low, driven finish that gave Eastwood no chance.
The Blackburn keeper almost rescued his side with that dramatic late intervention but it is Liverpool who are still alive. And suspended captain Steven Gerrard can still hope for a dream Reds farewell in the final on his birthday, 30 May. – BBC Sport