Arsenal 2-1 Reading AET
Only one Cinderella remained at the ball for the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Reading, the sole non-Premier League team left in the historic tournament came into Wembley sitting 19th in the English Championship, more than 30 slots below their opponents. Arsenal, on the other hand, were sitting comfortably in second place in the top flight, but with Arsene Wenger in charge, the reigning FA Cup holders would have known better than to take Saturday’s match for granted.
The first half saw the Gunners dominate the chances with Per Mertesacker coming closest when his header forced Reading keeper Adam Federici into an impressive save early on. Who else but Alexis Sanchez would break the deadlock for Arsenal? The Chilean forward has thrived in his first season in London and his master class was once again on display when his amazing touch to bring down a Mesut Ozil through ball gave the attacker a wide-open sight at goal. Sanchez made no mistake and calmly passed his effort past a helpless Federici. This would be the lone goal of the half, and the Championship side would have been encouraged that they were still in the match.
An upset seemed to be in the cards less than ten minutes into the second half as Reading found an equalizer. A hectic passage of play in the Gunners’ penalty area saw Garath McCleary get on the end of a looping cross. The Jamaican winger capitalized on this rare chance and powered his effort past Wojciech Szczesny (who was starting his first game for Arsenal since their defeat of Manchester United in the previous round). The Polish keeper would have been frustrated that he couldn’t keep McCleary’s effort out of the net as his goal line catch was too late to stop the ball from crossing the line.
Arsenal’s newest signing, Gabriel Paulista, almost scored the winner in regulation but again Federici denied an Arsenal headed effort with an amazing save. Aaron Ramsey had another glorious chance to end the match in 90 minutes but the Welsh midfielder squandered his one-on-one effort with Federici. Despite all of Arsenal’s pressure, the two sides remained level after 90 minutes and needed extra time to see who would punch a ticket to the final.
In stoppage time of the first additional period, you could almost hear Reading’s hearts break. In perhaps the cruelest turn of fate, Federici, who was perhaps Reading’s best player of the match, saw his routine save of a Sanchez shot slip through his hands and roll into the back of the net. It’s not how Sanchez would have imagined netting his brace, but it was good enough to send the Gunners to the final and give them the chance to repeat as champions.
Liverpool 1-2 Aston Villa
In a weekend that saw my beloved Manchester United fall to Chelsea, seeing Liverpool get eliminated from the FA Cup brought some much needed joy into my life. Before the match, Liverpool fans would have been fantasizing about giving Steven Gerrard a dream sendoff from the club with an FA Cup winners’ medal on his birthday. Ten spots separated the Reds from Aston Villa in the Premier League, but the Claret and Blue have looked a changed side since appointing Tim Sherwood as manager in February.
Villa started the match positively and a long distance Charles N’Zogbia shot nearly put the Villains ahead but it crept over the bar. After a fairly even run of play for the first 30 minutes, Liverpool were able to put one foot into the final courtesy of their Brazilian magician Phillippe Coutinho. After what looked like a wasted possession in Villa’s penalty area, Raheem Sterling was able to slot a pass into the path of the Brazilian who promptly smashed into the side netting to put his side ahead.
The joy of scoring was soon drowned out, however, when Christian Benteke fired in the equalizer just six minutes later. Some fine counter-attacking play on wings from Villa ended with Fabian Delph laying off the perfect feed for his Belgian teammate to smash in. This vital strike was Benteke’s 12th in all competitions this season as he leads Villa in attack. After the exciting exchange in this ten-minute span, the two sides entered the second half deadlocked at one goal apiece.
Just nine minutes into the second half, the man that played provider for Benteke’s goal found himself on the score sheet. Delph started the attack with a pinpointed through ball to Benteke from the halfway line. After a slick back heel pass from the Belgian, Jack Grealish found an onrushing Delph in the box who muscled off his man and fired home the eventual game winner past Simon Mignolet.
The remaining half hour of the match saw Brendan Rodgers’ side push further and further up on attack. The desperation to give Gerrard a dream sendoff and win their first trophy since 2011 appeared to spark a fire under Liverpool as they struggled to find an equalizer. Gerrard nearly notched a famous goal from a corner only to see it cleared off the line by ex-Man United player Kieran Richardson. The match did not come without controversy as Liverpool fans saw a rare Mario Balotelli goal called back very late in the match. Replays seemed to show the Italian onside when Gerrard fired his long ball up field, but the linesman saw differently.
The second half pressure failed to yield a goal as Aston Villa held on for a famous victory to go through to the final. If the team from Birmingham is able to upset Arsenal in the final, it will be their first FA Cup triumph since 1957 and their first trophy in almost 20 years. It will take a magical effort to dethrone the Gunners, but in the FA Cup anything is possible.