The one that got away
A free transfer can be unexpectedly expensive. Just ask Manchester City. The £14 million recruit they released cost them a place in the Carling Cup final, Craig Bellamy securing Liverpool's belated first appearance at the new Wembley. His hometown club and another of his many previous employers, Cardiff City, await on February 26.
But while the Welshman's professional life consists of a series of reunions, this was also a revenge mission, coolly executed and joyously celebrated. Roberto Mancini had marginalised and then exiled Bellamy, the Mark Hughes loyalist. It was a decision that backfired to complete the theme of the week. It has been dominated by his troublesome, temperamental forwards. With Mario Balotelli banned, with Carlos Tevez £9 million poorer but still on City's books, the sucker punch came from the attacker Mancini cast aside. Bellamy ended City's determined resistance meaning that, in a season full of draws at Anfield, this brought jubilation, rather than the usual irritation.
Rather than bemoaning spurned chances, Liverpool are revisiting past glories and old haunts. They were last at the old Wembley in 1996. "Maybe we have forgotten the route, but I'm sure the driver will remember," said Kenny Dalglish dryly.
The six-year wait for silverware seems to be nearing an end, just as tangible validation for the manager is tantalisingly close. As the final whistle went, Dalglish punched the air, sharing his delight with a directors' box that contained decorated colleagues such as Alan Hansen, Phil Thompson and Ian Rush and American investors alike. The latter may have been the intended audience. It hardly hindered Dalglish's cause that his most visible triumph in the transfer market ensured progress.
Bellamy, watching owner John W Henry may have reflected, is a sabermetric success. Having cost nothing, his value is immense; indeed in Luis Suarez's extended absence, he is indispensable. "Craig was fantastic," Dalglish added.
The spiky spearhead tormented Stefan Savic - it counted as a merciful release when the Montenegrin was substituted at half-time - and led from the front, setting a fearsome tempo. Others followed suit and Dalglish's summary was succinct. "The players were magnificent," he said. "Everything that was lacking [in the 3-1 defeat to Bolton] on Saturday was there tonight."
That included the finish, and Bellamy provided the decisive one. After exchanging passes with Glen Johnson, he steered his shot past the outstanding Joe Hart. Liverpool's passage would have been simpler without the England international, who saved brilliantly from Jose Enrique, Martin Skrtel and Stewart Downing to maintain his fine form. He was defeated by Steven Gerrard, with a masterly spot kick; in a season of missed penalties for Liverpool, two the captain has converted in either leg have been hugely important.
The award, however, was debatable. Daniel Agger's shot flew up off Micah Richards' shin to hit his hand, raised above the City captain's head. Controversy has become a constant where City are concerned and Mancini was angered. "In the last two months, we are very unlucky with referees," the Italian argued. "It was not a penalty." His side, he insisted, should have had one.
A sense of injustice lingers. The FA's retrospective action deprived them of Balotelli, following his stamp on Scott Parker, and Mancini added: "I hope tomorrow they can change the result after the game."
Yet discussions about decisions should not obscure Liverpool's achievement. In winning at the Britannia Stadium, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad en route, their place to Wembley has been earned. The Anfield atmosphere is at its most intense in semi-final second legs, as both Barcelona and Chelsea can testify, and for all Liverpool's stumbles, they retain the only unbeaten home record in England in all competitions.
City threatened to snap it. Nigel de Jong gave them the lead. His second goal in three years was doubly remarkable, for its rarity and its quality. Slipping as he shot from 25 yards, the Dutchman's swerving effort arced back inside the post; Roberto Carlos came to mind, not a normal comparison for the efficient anchorman.
Extra time was threatened again when Serb and Bosnian combined. Fallible in defence, Aleksandar Kolarov prospered further forward. A wonderfully inviting cross got the finish it merited, Edin Dzeko tapping in from four yards.
Yet when a wonderful game concluded, it was with City's former forward as the headline act. "I am happy for Craig," Mancini said disingenuously. Meanwhile, Dalglish was uncharacteristically cheeky. "If City have got any more like him that they want rid of, we are only down the East Lancs Road," he said. It is an invitation City are unlikely to accept. Their munificence was rewarded by Bellamy's magnificence.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Craig Bellamy - Quite apart from the wonderfully composed finish, it was an extraordinary physical effort from a player who normally struggles to play back-to-back games. Bellamy hassled and harried the City defence mercilessly in an inspired display. The standing ovation he got was fully merited.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: This was much more like it. Perhaps the top teams bring the best out of him, which bodes well for the second half of their Mancunian double header when United visit in Saturday's FA Cup tie. Yet unless Bellamy can start for a third time in eight days, a very different gameplan will be required. The lack of a natural defensive midfielder was evident again when De Jong was afforded too much room to shoot for his goal, but there were plenty of improved performances. As is often the case, Gerrard was excellent. More unusually, given his underwhelming campaign, so was Dirk Kuyt, who worked tirelessly on the right flank.
MANCHESTER CITY VERDICT: As their next game is not for another six days, there was some surprise that both Sergio Aguero and James Milner were demoted to the bench. The introduction of the Argentine for the sorry Savic was recognition that the initial tactics were not working. While City had taken the lead, it was against the run of play after Liverpool began at pace. But they played their part in a compelling second half and have departed both domestic cup competitions showing plenty of spirit.