When the penalties were done, a fifth trophy had been added to Manchester City’s collection from the Abu Dhabi era, Yaya Touré was twirling his shirt on his personal victory run and a swarm of photographers was heading for Willy Caballero. Caballero’s selection had been risky after his erratic performances as Joe Hart’s understudy but it was his goalkeeping that meant the first silverware of the season would be heading to Manchester and those were the moments when we saw why Manuel Pellegrini had placed his trust in him.
Caballero could not keep out Emre Can’s impudent little pitch-wedge to get the penalties underway but thereafter he was unbeatable, diving to his left to turn away a decent attempt by Lucas Leiva, a hesitant one from Philippe Coutinho, and then the other way to beat out Adam Lallana’s effort for his third successive save. Fernandinho had struck the post with City’s first penalty but Jesús Navas and Sergio Agüero were both on target and when Touré buried the next attempt it decided the game without having to go to Wilfried Bony and James Milner for the final round.
Liverpool, trying to win this competition for a ninth time, had already beaten Carlisle United and Stoke City this way, but while Caballero was hoisted on to the players’ shoulders, with the Wembley arch illuminated in blue and white and Daniel Sturridge reduced to tears, the final will be remembered as a personal ordeal for Simon Mignolet bearing in mind the unremarkable shot from Fernandinho that opened the scoring.
It was a wretched goal to concede and the unfortunate truth for Mignolet is that moment reminded us why many Liverpool supporters are perplexed he has been awarded a new five-year contract. Mignolet made some fine saves either side of that mistake but, unfortunately for him, they will quickly be forgotten in the context of the one he let through his arms.
Ahead early in the second half, City should probably have been spared extra time but for some poor officiating and their own wastefulness given the number of chances they passed up to make it 2-0. Raheem Sterling had a difficult day against his former club and turned the ball wide with two golden opportunities, the first from six yards out, and there was another reprieve for Liverpool when Agüero ran into the penalty area and Alberto Moreno flicked out his leg to bring him down. It was a clear penalty and the referee Michael Oliver’s decision to wave play on was bewildering, to say the least, with potentially serious ramifications for City when Coutinho equalised in the 83rd minute with Liverpool’s first shot on target.
Until that point Liverpool had seen plenty of the ball without making enough use of it to examine whether Caballero might be vulnerable. Pellegrini had stayed true to his word – “I’d rather lose a final than my word,” he said afterwards – and resisted any temptation to bring Hart into his team but Liverpool threatened only sporadically in the opening hour and Vincent Kompany’s considerable presence helped to ensure Caballero was well protected for the most part. Coutinho’s goal came on the rebound, after two of the substitutes had linked up and Lallana turned Divock Origi’s low cross against the post, but Kompany was excellent and Caballero’s fine work was not all reserved to the shootout. In extra time, there was a key save from Origi’s header.
Midway through the opening half Liverpool had lost Mamadou Sakho, replaced by Kolo Touré after clashing heads with Can and clearly distraught that the club’s medical staff would not let him play on. That meant Touré teaming up with Lucas in the centre of Liverpool’s defence and if that gave their back four a slightly vulnerable look there was only one moment in the first half when City put together a move that exposed their opponents. On that occasion Mignolet turned Agüero’s shot against the post. It was one of several fine saves but that is part of the Mignolet conundrum – outstanding at times but far too error-prone.
Four minutes into the second half City had the ball on the left when David Silva lofted a long, crossfield pass over to Agüero on the opposite side. Agüero held up play, waiting for Fernandinho to overlap on the right and there did not seem to be a great deal of danger for Mignolet when the shot came in. Fernandinho made a clean connection but the ball was not struck with venomous pace and the Brazilian was taking aim from a difficult angle.
Mignolet appeared to have it covered but the shot somehow found a gap, somewhere between his knees and gloves, that should not have existed. The collective groan from Liverpool’s supporters when the mistake was replayed on the large screens told the rest of the story.
In fairness to Mignolet, he did not let it affect him throughout the rest of the match, denying the impressive Yaya Touré a winner approaching the 90th -minute mark and keeping out Agüero when the Argentinian burst through in the first period of extra time. Agüero was a constant menace, with Fernandinho excelling in his new position on the right, but City were starting to look ragged in the final quarter of an hour.
They might still have spared themselves a nerve-shredding finale if Agüero had been able to turn James Milner’s misplaced header beyond Mignolet but it went to a contest from 12 yards, three saved penalties, Liverpool’s first shootout defeat in six finals when it has reached that stage – and Caballero’s finest moments in City’s colours.
Man of the match: Vincent Kompany (Manchester City)