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Liverpool falters on big stage again; Chelsea bunker proves successful

Ten places and 25 points might separate Liverpool and Aston Villa in the Premier League table, but on Sunday at Wembley, Villa was unquestionably the better team as it won the second FA Cup semifinal, 2-1.

Ten places and 25 points might separate Liverpool and Aston Villa in the Premier League table, but on Sunday at Wembley, Villa was unquestionably the better team as it won the second FA Cup semifinal, 2-1.

“We outplayed Liverpool, to be honest,” Villa manager Tim Sherwood told BT Sport after the game.

It was already clear that Sherwood has rejuvenated Aston Villa. The mystery on Sunday was why Liverpool froze, again.

Villa gave Liverpool the opening goal as Jores Okore, who had just come on, ended 20 seconds of awful defending by turning Philippe Coutinho’s shot into the Villa net after half an hour.

Liverpool could not exploit its advantage. Instead, Christian Benteke finished off one excellent Villa move to level six minutes later. Fabian Delph ended another excellent attack by putting Villa ahead after 54 minutes.

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Mario Balotelli had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside near the end.

"We robbed them," Sherwood joked, knowing that Liverpool hardly deserved to draw level.

“We were very disappointing. Villa were much better than us,” Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager told BT Sport. "We were nervous for some reason, maybe when you want to win something so much perhaps it plays on your mind.”

Rodgers must know that every other Liverpool manager since Bill Shankly, who took over in 1959, has won a trophy in the first three seasons. Perhaps one reason for the nerves is that, under Rodgers, Liverpool has developed the bad habit of blowing chances to win trophies. The team looked snakebit on Sunday.

Another problem may be Steven Gerrard’s farewell tour. The FA Cup final will be on his birthday. The script seemed to be written. Gerrard started for the first time in 12 matches. He could not deliver his famous big-game lines. Perhaps the desire to deliver for their beloved leader explained the uncertainty of his teammates.

Instead, Aston Villa faces Arsenal in the final. Arsenal was also flat in its semi-final. It advanced, 2-1, in extra time because Reading finally buckled in extra time. Goalie Adam Federici showed why he is playing in goal for the team that is 19th in the Championship when he fumbled a shot from Alexis Sánchez over the line.

For Sherwood, everything is amusing at the moment.

"I'll get a good reaction from those Arsenal fans," the former Tottenham player and manager said.

Short corners

The cold maters -- Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Manchester United on Saturday made a statement on several levels.

The most obvious is that, as captain John Terry reportedly told The Sun, Chelsea look like champions.

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The second is that Mourinho continues to be a master at winning big matches. He is not afraid to change his team or his tactics to neutralize an opponent’s strength. On Saturday he picked hulking defender Kurt Zouma in midfield to close down Marouane Fellaini who has been giving opponents fits. This meant that Chelsea, the would-be champion, started a home game with two defensive midfielders. United dominated possession. Chelsea had just under 30 percent of the ball, its lowest share at home since Opta started keeping the stat. The tactic worked. United had just two shots on goal.

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"We prepared for it to be like this. It was the game we wanted and expected." Mourinho told the BBC. "We were able to make their important players disappear. Nobody saw them. They were in our pockets."

He was gloating but he was right.

Chelsea also managed only two shots on goal, but one, after 38 minutes, came from Eden Hazard. He showed again why he will sweep up the Player of the Year awards with a sharp break and smart finish.

By the end, Mourinho had brought on Ramires and John Obi Mikel to join Zouma and Nemanja Matic to add more muscle in midfield. That too was a statement.

It seems almost perverse that, with the best squad in the Premier League, Mourinho should keep sending out his team to play like a desperate underdog. Of course the fans at Stamford Bridge adore him and are desperate for a first title in five years. At Inter Milan, which is after all the spiritual home of defensive “catenaccio", and at Porto, the fans were happy to win the Champions League by any method. Mourinho’s one significant failure was at Real Madrid, where the fans, and players, agreed with Voltaire’s dictum that “the great is the enemy of the good.”

Mourinho, it seems, is not interested in great. He is happy to count his trophies.

United's consolation -- Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal kept a straight face when he told the BBC after the defeat that this had been his team’s "best display of the season." He was hardly going to admit he had been outcoached by the man who was once his apprentice at Barcelona.

United was clearly hamstrung by injuries. The one that really hurt was Michael Carrick. His absence, and at 33 years old those absences are growing more frequent, deprived United of midfield intelligence – Carrick would probably have been filling the space that Hazard zoomed through to score. It also forced Rooney to drop into midfield, with the out-of-sorts Radamel Falcao coming into the attack.

But the absence of Daley Blind, so effective as a makeshift left back in recent weeks, may prove a boon. Young Luke Shaw, who has had such a trying first season at Old Trafford, was United’s most impressive payer and its one consistent attacking threat. The defeat could mark a breakthrough performance for one of United’s most important young assets.

Trying times -- A week after being outworked as it was soundly beaten in the Manchester derby, Manchester City put in 45 minutes of good work on Sunday. It scored twice in the first half and beat West Ham, 2-0. 

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As its form dipped, Manchester City's place in next season's Champions League looked like it could be in danger. So perhaps a little effort was the least the club could expect. The problem with judging whether this was genuinely an improved display was that West Ham set the bar so low.

With absolutely nothing to play for and manager Sam Allardyce seemingly headed out the door, many Hammers looked like they were out for a sunny Sunday stroll. City’s players did not need to do much to outwork their opponents.

Sound of no hands clapping -- Fans are the essential extras for the TV spectacle that is modern sport. A noisy full house reassures viewers that they have tuned in to something worth watching. The crowds are one of English soccer’s great assets.

Yet there were empty seats at Wembley on Saturday as Arsenal beat Reading, perhaps a sign of the FA Cup’s diminished significance. There were empty seats at the Etihad on Sunday where many Manchester City fans, so quickly jaded by success, opted not to put in the effort to watch a team that hasn’t been putting in the effort to play.

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There were even some empty seats at St James’ Park where fans long used to mediocrity have finally grown irked with owner Mike Ashley’s apparent view that the club they love is simply his ATM. The majority of the ground was full but those who did show up did not even witness mediocrity. Their awful team lost an awful game, 3-1, to Tottenham.

Newcastle counts all its 40,000-odd season-ticket holders in its attendance figures whether they show up or not. Because it has had their money since last summer, the club hardly cares if they actualy attend.

Ashley might be immune to embarrassment. But if the fans find they can live without going to games, the proposed boycott could hit Ashley where it hurts in the summer.

Fleet foxes -- Less than a month ago, Leicester was last in the Premier League and seven points from safety. The team attacked, attacked and attacked but could not score enough goals to win.

In the last three matches, Leicester’s luck has changed. Even bad breaks are turning out well. On Saturday, David Nugent, one of the Premier League’s greater wasters of good chances, was supposed to start against Swansea. He was injured in the warm up. Leonardo Ulloa, who has also struggled to convert, started instead. He broke his drought after 15 minutes. Leicester won 2-0. It is now only in the relegation places on goal difference.

It is sometimes difficult to tell if Nigel Pearson, the Leicester manager, is crazy like a fox, or just crazy.

“We need to win games,” Pearson told the BBC afterwards, speaking very softly and very, very slowly as if he’s struggling to control an urge to smash an ax into someone’s head. “It’s always a delicate balance between being a little bit on the front foot and being positive but also making sure you are organized and disciplined.”

For now, Leicester has the balance right.