Manchester City 3 Everton 1 (City win 4-3 on agg)
Manchester City will face Liverpool in the Capital One Cup showpiece at Wembley next month after Manuel Pellegrini's introduction of Kevin De Bruyne turned the semi-final their way.
Some 67 minutes had been played and City were trailing 3-2 on aggregate when the manager made the decision. On came De Bruyne for Yaya Touré and 10 minutes later it was 4-3 overall to City, 3-1 on the night, and the 24-year-old had scored the second and created Sergio Agüero’s winner.
De Bruyne's equaliser was controversial, though. The ball seemed to be out of play as Raheem Sterling pulled it back and Everton will be infuriated when they see replays. Yet there was no mistake about De Bruyne's strike and City deserved to go through due to the impressive manner of their comeback, though there was a sour finish for the Belgian as he was taken off on a stretcher near the end.
This second leg began at a steam-train pace that did not waver until the sides broke for half-time. Touré was positioned at the base of the home midfield and from there he made the game's opening run, to signal City meant business. This was answered by the jet-heeled Gerard Deulofeu racing along the right and leaving Martín Demichelis looking like a statue before he won a corner. The Spaniard took this and it was cleared by a Willy Caballero punch, but City were warned. The opener would come from some equally scintillating Everton attacking.
Agüero was dispossessed by Ramiro Funes Mori near the Everton area and the visiting centre back passed to Leon Osman. This was along the left and when Ross Barkley received inside City's half he had work to do, and he was about to do it excellently. The midfielder cut infield, outmuscled the hapless Nicolás Otamendi, and drilled a low 20-yard shot that beat Caballero easily. This was a bit of magic to light up any semi-final and had Roberto Martínez punching the air. It gave Everton a 3-1 aggregate lead and meant City's away goal from the first leg at Goodison Park was cancelled out.
The visiting fans were still celebrating when City struck back six minutes later though. David Silva stabbed a pass beyond Everton's defence into Agüero. His shot was blocked by Phil Jagielka and the rebounding ball fell to an onrushing Fernandinho who smacked it past Joel Robles thanks to a Leighton Baines deflection that looped beyond the goalkeeper.
Despite the leveller it was City who appeared vulnerable each time Everton attacked. John Stones made one mazy run that tore straight through a home midfield that parted too easily, and in Deulofeu, Barkley, Osman and the marauding Romelu Lukaku Everton had a front four that terrorised the City defence.
Pellegrini had chosen a central midfield triangle of Touré, Fabian Delph and Fernandinho that was supposed to offer a robust defensive shield and a base from which the side could overrun Everton.
When City had possession the attacking part of this ploy worked, but too often the ball was not won back quickly enough when they did not. Yet Pellegrini’s side could still count themselves unlucky not to have the tie’s equaliser when an Agüero rocket wobbled Robles’s left-hand post and the Spaniard bounced back off the turf to save instantly from Silva’s follow-up.
As the interval arrived the Etihad Stadium had witnessed a terrific game, so far, and Everton were heading for a first Wembley final since 2009 if they could hold on to their aggregate 3-2 lead. Given their inability to do protect that scoreline previously on occasions this season the smart money was on them failing to do so, but this was the challenge for Martínez and his side as they wandered out for the second half.
Everton had been good value for the 2-1 advantage they had arrived with. The caveat was the breakaway goal Jesús Navas scored at Goodison. It came from a corner, which should never occur, and again questioned Martínez's ability and that of his players to answer the defensive demands of the game. The 3-3 draw at Chelsea two Saturdays ago had come when John Terry equalised in the 98th minute and is held up as the latest evidence against the Spaniard. Not only were Everton also leading 2-0, Terry's late show mirrored Bournemouth's 3-3 draw and Stoke City's 4-3 win earlier in the campaign: each of these results deriving from goals conceded at the death.
So whether Martínez would stick or twist was the big question as the second half began. Pellegrini made the first move, taking off the ineffective Delph for Navas, who had entered the first leg on 54 minutes to such telling effect.
Inside three minutes of the restart Deulofeu spurned a golden chance to stretch his team’s aggregate lead to two goals. Once again his pace took him through the City rearguard with ease but the shot was aimed too close to Caballero.
Now, the usually lethal Agüero missed and this was from an easier chance. Navas hit the ball across the area and with the goal gaping the Argentinian mistimed the attempt and Everton breathed easier. Next Silva cursed his misfortune when his header hit Robles’s right-hand post and the ball was scrambled away.
City’s strength is their potency in attack and their options in this area. The prime illustration came when Pellegrini swapped Touré for De Bruyne and the tie was won. Now, City hope to claim the trophy in the final on February 28th.