By Steve Douglas ,AP
LIVERPOOL — A Merseyside derby in the English League Cup final was closer to reality after Everton beat Manchester City 2-1 in the first leg of their semifinal on Wednesday, with in-form Romelu Lukaku grabbing the winner.
Lukaku scored his 19th goal of the season when he headed home late at Goodison Park, giving Everton a deserved lead to take to City for the second leg on Jan. 27.
Liverpool, Everton’s close neighbor and biggest rival, leads Stoke 1-0 after the first leg of the other semifinal. The Merseyside clubs met in the 1984 final, which Liverpool won, during a period in which they were the dominant teams in the country.
There are still 90 minutes to go in both matchups — the second legs are in three weeks — but Everton manager Roberto Martinez said his team will take confidence from the manner of this victory, outplaying City at times.
Ramiro Funes Mori put Everton ahead in first-half injury time, steering home a rebound from close range after Ross Barkley’s shot was parried out, and the hosts were pressing for a second goal — perhaps over-zealously — when City equalized on a counterattack in the 76th.
Sergio Aguero controlled a long clearance forward and had only two defenders in front of him on the halfway line. The striker laid in a perfectly weighted pass for substitute Jesus Navas, who had sprinted upfield in support and met the ball with a first-time diagonal shot past goalkeeper Joel Robles.
But two minutes later Lukaku had the final say. He has failed to score in only two of his last 12 games in all competitions, making him arguably the most lethal striker in English soccer at the moment.
“I have always thought Romelu Lukaku is the perfect striker for our team,” Martinez said. “He wants to be the best in the world … it’s a joy to see him enjoying his football and scoring goals.”
Lukaku hobbled off with a minor ankle injury soon after scoring, one of three Everton players to go off in the second half as England’s hectic schedule during and after Christmas continues to take its toll. Seamus Coleman and Tom Cleverley had more serious calf injuries.
City started brightly but often looked sluggish, with Barkley finding plenty of space between City’s defense and midfield to instigate attacks. Gareth Barry performed an admirable job as Everton’s holding midfielder and provided the assist for Lukaku, leading Martinez to describe him as “one of the best English players ever.”
City got 90 minutes out of Aguero as he battles back to full fitness — and he wasted City’s best chances aside from the goal — but lost center back Eliaquim Mangala to a hamstring injury. With Vincent Kompany also out, City is short of cover in central defense.
Everton has never won the League Cup, losing the final in 1977 and ’84. City has won it three times, most recently in 2014.