Instead of the Liverpool captain inspiring his side to victory, the midfielder was forced to stand aside, overshadowed by the outstanding Jack Grealish and Fabian Delph who, together with Christian Benteke, provided the inspiration behind Aston Villa’s deserved win.
Benteke and Delph scored the goals – Grealish was the architect of both – that allowed Villa to recover after Philippe Coutinho had given Liverpool a 30th minute lead and continue their remarkable transformation since Tim Sherwood took charge in February with the club in downward spiral.
Relegation from the Premier League remains a threat but this win will harden the belief at Villa Park that safety will soon be assured, allowing focus to be trained on the return to Wembley for the meeting with Arsenal.
For Brendan Rodgers and his players there was only frustration after failing to improve on their semi-final defeat in the Capital One Cup. Apart from a brief period in the first-half when Coutinho put them ahead, they were second best and the sight of Kieran Richardson clearing Gerrard’s 87th minute header off the line confirmed not even the captain’s reputation as a salvager of lost causes would save them.
In truth, Shay Given had little to do in the Villa goal and while Rodgers pointed to an incorrect offside decision that prevented Mario Balotelli running clear on goal in the final moments, even he admitted his side had been second best, out-fought and, in the case of Grealish and Delph, out-thought.
Grealish, in particular, stood out with the teenager playing with an assured confidence that belied his inexperience. The 19-year-old’s international future remains undecided and this display will only strengthen the determination of Martin O’Neill and Roy Hodgson to enlist the teenager.
It was a measure of Villa’s excellence Rodgers felt moved to tinker with his side’s formation midway through the first-half, transforming the unconvincing back three into a more resolute looking four
The switch was rewarded almost immediately. Coutinho and Gerrard finally pressed, forcing the Villa defence to hurry for the first time and after a short period of pressure, Sherwood’s side were breached.
Jordan Henderson raced forward to collect Coutinho’s pass and pull back for Gerrard, but when the Liverpool captain’s shot was blocked, the danger should have been cleared. It wasn’t, and Sterling took advantage, collecting the loose ball and squaring for Coutinho who capped a fine run with a finish that was deflected past Given off the knee of Jores Okore with half an hour gone.
Fortune appeared to be tilting in Liverpool’s favour but there had been enough promise in Villa’s opening attacks to suggest they were more than capable of forcing their way back into the game.
It took Villa just six minutes to level after a swift, incisive break that left Rodgers’ side painfully exposed. Grealish ran from halfway before releasing a perfectly timed ball into the path of Delph who had surged past his team-mate on the left hand side of the box. The England international pulled the ball back first time into the path of Benteke whose side-foot finish always appeared destined to beat Simon Mignolet. Once again Liverpool looked uncertain and Rodgers made another change at half-time, this time introducing Balotelli to lead the attack with Sterling pushed out wide.
The Italian has rarely managed to change the direction of a game for Liverpool this season and while this was one of his better displays, he was again unable to make the difference when Liverpool were forced to chase the game after Delph made it two.
This time Benteke prompted the break but it was Grealish who once again moved the ball forward, picking out Delph’s almost identical run and the midfielder finished assuredly.
Late Liverpool pressure brought headed chances for Dejan Lovren and Gerrard but Villa’s stood firm.
ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Given 7; Bacuna 6, Vlaar 7, Baker 6 (Okore 26, 6), Richardson 7; Cleverley 7, Westwood 7, N’Zogbia 7 (Sinclair 75,6), Delph 8, Grealish 9 (Cole 83,6); Benteke 8.
LIVERPOOL (3-4-2- 1): Mignolet 6; Can 6, Skrtel 6, Lovren 6; Markovic 5 (Balotelli 46,7), Henderson 5, Allen 5 (Johnson 77,6), Moreno 6 (Lambert 90);
Referee: M Oliver (Northumberland) 8