At around 2 pm on Sunday April 19th 2014, Aston Villa’s players will have looked at the individuals on Liverpool’s team sheet and thought: “You know what? We’re better than these.”
Tim Sherwood will have reinforced this belief, and sent his side out onto the Wembley pitch with plenty of confidence, a clear but simple tactical plan, and absolutely no fear.
The steady left-footer Fabian Delph knows Jordan Henderson from their time in recent England squads, and will fully believe he’s better than his midfield counterpart.
Tom Cleverley played alongside Joe Allen in Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic side, and will have had no reason to think that the Welshman would get the upper hand against him.
Nineteen-year-old Jack Grealish – a fearless cross between Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho – will have approached the game with excitement and anticipation, rather than the trepidation, weight of expectation, and tension built up inside Liverpool’s star pair.
We saw some of this tension released during Coutinho’s goal celebration as the Reds, playing in yellow, went ahead despite being unconvincing in the early exchanges.
Coutinho’s run into the box, coupled with an intelligent pass from Sterling who instinctively knew where his team-mate was running, was the only moment of class from the pre-match favourites.
On bad days for the side, the two of them look out of place, and cut frustrated figures as they attempt to create a spark amongst Liverpool’s pile of damp wood.
This frustration was epitomised during the meek semi-final display. It’s a performance which reminded fans of the latter stages of 2014, when Brendan Rodgers’ men timidly and embarrassingly slumped out of the Champions League.
Indeed, this game was reminiscent of Liverpool losing their bottle against Basel, submitting to Real Madrid at Anfield, and capitulating in last month’s league encounter against Manchester United.
The recent failures in the league meant that Liverpool had everything on the line at Wembley. In a season where the targets were top 4 and/or a cup, the ramshackle reds and their manager looked scared of losing rather than hungry to win. Aston Villa on the other hand, had nothing to lose.
Their central defender Ron Vlaar coasted through the game, dealing with attacks in the way an in form Martin Skrtel would. It wasn’t a perfect performance from the Dutchman, but it didn’t need to be.
At the other end Christian Benteke had a field day against a central defensive pairing which has never looked anywhere near Premier League standard, and one which also managed to make Charles N’zogbia look like Arjen Robben.
Ashley Westwood went about his job with an understated positional discipline which Gerrard couldn’t show, whilst Cleverley and Delph proved right the initial thoughts that they’re more than a match for Allen and Henderson.
After the game Rodgers commented that the team looked nervous, lacked energy, and were too passive, but the manager was also at fault in that he didn’t let the players settle into a rhythm, changing the tactics constantly throughout the game. It’s another competition where Liverpool were a couple of games away from success, but fell before even reaching the final hurdle.
There goes the cup, there goes the Champions League, and there goes the fear, again.