Wednesday 25th January

REDS HEADING FOR WEMBLEY

Striker Craig Bellamy scored the crucial goal against former club Manchester City to put Liverpool into their first Wembley final for 16 years.

The Wales international scored with 16 minutes remaining to make it 2-2 on the night and 3-2 on aggregate.

City took the lead through Nigel de Jong's long-range effort but Steven Gerrard equalised with a generously-awarded penalty and although Edin Dzeko gave his side a sight of extra-time, those hopes were extinguished by Bellamy.

Aleksandar Kolarov almost gifted Jose Enrique an opener in the fourth minute from a sliced clearance back across goal but Joe Hart's outstretched foot blocked the left-back's shot and Stewart Downing
screwed his follow-up volley wide.

The home side dominated the opening half-hour but they were hit with a career-best goal from De Jong. Having collected a square pass from David Silva 30 yards out the trajectory of his sweetly-struck shot started outside Jose Reina's left-hand post but curled back enough to
brilliantly beat the goalkeeper.

Liverpool were level as Phil Dowd generously decided Daniel Agger's shot which deflected up off Micah Richards and on to his arm was a penalty and Gerrard, scorer from the spot in the first encounter, fired home to make it four consecutive goals in league cup semi-finals, having scored
in both legs against Watford in 2005.

Stefan Savic was replaced by Sergio Aguero for the second half as City reverted to a flat back four but Liverpool were first to threaten again as Gerrard whipped in a free-kick from the left and Hart half-punched only to redeem himself by tipping over Martin Skrtel's goalbound shot.

The England goalkeeper, as he had done in November's league draw at Anfield, superbly kept the Reds at bay again when he tipped over Downing's downward volley from Dirk Kuyt's cross.

Silva wasted a free-kick from the right after the Spaniard was booked for fouling Pablo Zabaleta but there could not have been a greater contrast with Kolarov's cross in the 67th minute. The Russian drilled a low ball from wide on the left across Liverpool's six-yard box for Dzeko, who had lost Agger, to tap in at the far post.

Liverpool have a habit of producing fairytale finishes under the Anfield floodlights and so it proved. Kuyt's pass in from the right to Bellamy was laid off to Glen Johnson who immediately bounced the ball back to the Welshman who curled home with his left foot.

Tuesday 24th January

HEATON HEROICS SEND CARDIFF THROUGH

Cardiff City keeper Tom Heaton was the hero with two saves in a 3-1 penalty shootout win over Crystal Palace as the Bluebirds reached their first ever Carling Cup final.

Cardiff had led on the night after Anthony Gardner, Palace's first-leg matchwinner, put through his own net. The hosts struck the woodwork three times through Kenny Miller, Filip Kiss and Aron Gunnarsson, while Palace played with 10 men from the 78th minute after captain Paddy
McCarthy was dismissed for two fouls on Scotland striker Miller.

But the missed chances did not prove costly as Heaton, who is second choice behind David Marshall, saved from Jermaine Easter and Sean Scannell, before Jonathan Parr put the decisive spot-kick wide.

Cardiff took the lead in just the seventh minute as Gardner, who had given Palace their slender advantage, drew the Bluebirds level in the tie by putting through his own net. Darcy Blake played Don Cowie in down the right and Gardner could only turn his cross past a stranded Julian Speroni.

The hosts remained the dominant force, enjoying large swathes of possession and Miller should have doubled their lead after Parr's woeful header gifted Gunnarsson possession. The midfielder played the Scotland striker in as Palace appealed in vain for offside, but his left-footed shot rolled agonisingly wide of the right-hand post.

And there was more anguish for Miller when he hammered a volley against the post moments before the interval. Miller was again in the thick of the action on the resumption, picking his way past three defenders before working the ball to Peter Whittingham, whose low shot beat Speroni but also the near post.

Cardiff were given a reminder of the threat the visitors posed on the counter as substitute Scannell's first contribution was to tee up  Wilfired Zaha, but the teenager could only blaze harmlessly wide.

Having missed that great opportunity to put themselves back in front on aggregate, Palace were then reduced to 10 men with 12 minutes to go as McCarthy was handed a second booking following another tussle with Miller, leaving the centre-half decidedly unimpressed by Howard Webb's
decision.

With the extra man Cardiff dominated the entirety of the 30-minute period and would not have had to endure the agonies of penalties had Kiss not whacked a volley against the bar from inside the box, and Gunnarsson not done likewise by contriving to find the woodwork with his point-blank header.

Those misses looked like they might prove costly when Miller missed the first spot-kick, but Heaton saved low down from Easter and Scannell, before Parr failed to find the target to send the Welsh club to Wembley for the third time in five seasons and spark a minor pitch invasion by the delighted home support.

Wednesday 11th January

GERRARD GIVES REDS THE EDGE

Manchester City slumped to their second home defeat in four days as Steven Gerrard's early penalty earned a 1-0 win and moved Liverpool to within 90 minutes of their first Wembley appearance since 1996. Lacking key men, including skipper Vincent Kompany who began a four-match ban, and drained by the energy exerted at having to play for

78 minutes with 10 men against Manchester United at the weekend, City were a shadow of their usual selves. It represented the first time they had lost back-to-back games at the Etihad Stadium since February 2008, before Sheikh Mansour began his billion pound quest to conquer the English game.

The only consolation came from knowing they could still reach a Carling Cup final against either Crystal Palace or Cardiff if they can reverse this result in the second leg at Anfield in a fortnight.

Little wonder Roberto Mancini was so keen to fight Kompany's suspension.

With Kolo Toure on African Nations Cup duty with the Ivory Coast, it forced the City boss to pitch Stefan Savic into the biggest game of his fledgling Blues career.

The Montenegrin was only 21 last week and has started just one Barclays Premier League game for City since joining from Partizan Belgrade in the summer.

It soon became clear he was in for a difficult evening.

That Andy Carroll was able to spin away from him and race onto Stewart Downing's through-ball said everything given the wretched time the Liverpool striker has had in his 12 months on Merseyside.

Returning keeper Joe Hart was equal to the shot, just as he was when Gerrard went for the far corner a couple of minutes later and Downing had an effort deflected towards the same area of his goal.

Savic had another trick up his sleeve though as Daniel Agger forced his way into the box from the corner. The youngster panicked, attempted to clear when he was nowhere near favourite to reach the ball and Agger bit the dust.

Referee Lee Mason awarded the spot-kick and Gerrard drove it past England team-mate Hart to put the visitors ahead. That all this occurred inside the opening 11 minutes emphasised the difficulties City were having, and no one epitomised them more than Mario Balotelli.

An injury doubt beforehand, the combustible Italian reacted in anger when Charlie Adam bundled him over, then tapped him on the head as he ran away from the scene.

Balotelli belted the subsequent free-kick into the wall and then hobbled away for no discernable reason.

After a few more minutes of relative inactivity, during which he let a straightforward pass roll out for a throw-in and gave a free-kick as he tried to make amends, Mancini decided he had seen enough.

Balotelli headed straight for the tunnel, bringing an end to another bizarre chapter in his career.

It was not until the last moments of the half that City finally roused themselves, only for Samir Nasri to be denied by Pepe Reina and James Milner to fire Micah Richards' cut-back over.

On Sunday, City responded magnificently to a far worse half-time scoreline and almost secured a result that would stand alongside any in this stellar season.

But they needed the kind of lift Aleksandar Kolarov gave them against United with that magnificent free-kick.

This time around, they just encounter frustration as Reina stayed on his feet long enough to prevent Aguero getting a shot on target after the South American had spotted Martin Kelly about to play a blind backpass.

Unusually poor in a heavy defeat on the same ground eight days ago, Reina was also in the right place to deny Richards' close-range header after the stand-in City skipper had met Nasri's corner.

The disappointment was that instead of going for the jugular, against opponents so lacking in verve compared to their thrill-a-minute efforts earlier in the season, Liverpool grew increasingly more negative.

By the time Jamie Carragher replaced Craig Bellamy 11 minutes from time to take up a midfield holding role, the visitors had six orthodox defenders on the field.

Little wonder City failed to make a chance of note as they continued to run into a red brick wall in what time remained.

Tuesday 10th January

EAGLES DRAW FIRST BLOOD

Anthony Gardner put Crystal Palace on course for their first major Wembley final since 1990 with the only goal in their 1-0 Carling Cup semi-final first leg victory over Cardiff.

Former Tottenham defender Gardner netted for the first time in more than a year to spark jubilant scenes at Selhurst Park and leave Palace fans dreaming of their first semi success in four attempts.

Kenny Miller had an equaliser controversially disallowed for Cardiff, who will nevertheless need to show more cutting edge in the Welsh capital in two weeks' time if they are to turn the tie around.

Having stunned Manchester United at Old Trafford in the previous round, Palace will be confident of finishing the job and ending the semi-final heartache that has seen them lose at this stage of the competition three times since famously reaching the FA Cup final 22 years ago.

Whatever the outcome, the npower Championship is guaranteed at least one representative against either Manchester City or Liverpool next month.

Highly-rated defender Nathanial Clyne was the only virus-hit Palace player who failed to recover for the clash, with Julian Speroni, Paddy McCarthy, Gardner and Mile Jedinak all back as manager Dougie Freedman made 10 changes from Saturday's FA Cup defeat at Derby.

Cardiff made the same number of changes from their own third round cup exit, with Kevin McNaughton fit to return along with the likes of Kenny Miller and Peter Whittingham.

The home fans appeared to be still basking in the glory of their United victory in what was a carnival atmosphere at a packed Selhurst.

The crowd soon turned hostile as Cardiff dominated the opening exchanges, with a controversial free-kick almost reaching Aron Gunnarsson via a deflection.

Speroni just managed to gather Joe Ralls' shot at the second attempt but moments later - completely against the run of play - Old Trafford hero Glenn Murray mistimed a free header from a corner.

Ben Turner nodded over a much more difficult chance from a corner at the other end as Cardiff continued to hold sway. But Palace had more of a cutting edge and might have been ahead in the 27th minute had Kagisho Dikgacoi not shot too close to Tom Heaton after being teed up by Chris Martin.

Miller's curling cross sailed narrowly wide and Gardner also threw himself at a finish from the Scotland striker but Cardiff's raids were becoming more sporadic.

Ralls sent another finish just wide before Palace struck two minutes before the break.

Heaton tried to claim Darren Ambrose's free-kick but was beaten by Jedinak, whose flick-on was nodded into an empty net by Gardner, the unlikeliest of goalscorers.

Martin went close to inadvertently deflecting in Ambrose's shanked shot and Mike Dean rightly waved away handball appeals against Don Cowie as Palace began the second half strongly.

But Cardiff had a handball shout of their own snubbed and then saw what would have been an equaliser chalked off moments later.

Ralls' volley was deflected narrowly wide and Miller nodded the resulting corner into the net at the far post but Dean had already whistled, apparently for a foul on Speroni.

McNaughton limped off to be replaced by Darcy Blake in the 66th minute before Gardner flicked a header wide from another fine Ambrose free-kick.

The visitors threw on Stephen McPhail for Joe Mason four minutes later, with Ralls again sending a mid-range shot straight at Speroni before Palace introduced Sean Scannell for Martin.

Ralls was booked for a cynical trip on Ambrose as the midfielder threatened to extend a 25-yard surge but Palace were otherwise on the defensive as they sought to avoid a potentially damaging away goal.

They ran down the clock by bringing on Jermaine Easter for Wilfried Zaha after Whittingham went close with a deflected shot.

Stoppage time saw Andrew Taylor send a rising drive narrowly over the crossbar as Palace held on.