By Steve Douglas ,AP
MANCHESTER — Manchester City relied on a controversial decision by officials and another decisive late goal from Sergio Aguero to set up an English League Cup final against Liverpool on Wednesday.
City came from behind to beat Everton 3-1 in a compelling second leg and seal a 4-3 win on aggregate.
Aguero grabbed the clinching goal from a header in the 76th minute to complete City’s recovery at Etihad Stadium, but Everton was left aggrieved that City’s second goal — scored by substitute Kevin De Bruyne to level the semifinal at 3-3 — was allowed to stand. The ball appeared to be out of play when Raheem Sterling sent in a cut-back that De Bruyne steered home.
“When the ball is out of play in the modern game, you don’t expect that to be missed,” Everton manager Roberto Martinez said. “It’s hurtful and unfair.”
City manager Manuel Pellegrini was more diplomatic, saying: “I just saw it. Maybe it was a mistake of the referee, but I think Everton cannot complain about the referee.”
De Bruyne changed the game after coming on as a 66th-minute substitute, scoring within four minutes and then providing the assist for Aguero’s 16th goal of the season. However, the Belgium midfielder ended the match being carried off on a stretcher — with apparent medial ligament damage to his right knee, according to Pellegrini — after falling awkwardly in a tackle in injury time.
It was the only negative on the night for City, which is still chasing trophies on four fronts domestically and in Europe. City will head to Wembley Stadium on Feb. 28 seeking a fourth League Cup title, most recently winning it in 2014.
“It will be a brilliant final,” predicted Pellegrini, whose side was thrashed 4-1 by Liverpool at home in the Premier League in November.
Back to full fitness after six weeks out before Christmas, Aguero has scored seven goals in his last seven games in all competitions and looks back to his prolific best. City would be lost without him.
“Aguero you saw reach a really sharp level,” Martinez said, “… but I feel it would be defended differently if it had been 1-1.”
Martinez kept returning to City’s second goal in his post-match news conference, saying it “killed our opportunity.” The Spanish coach is coming under increasing pressure as results continue to go against his side, which is 12th in the 20-team Premier League.
Protecting a 2-1 lead from the first leg, Everton went further ahead on aggregate when Ross Barkley scored from long range in the 18th minute. The England midfielder seemingly found space every time he was on the ball and for the goal, he picked up the ball unmarked before drifting past a weak attempted challenge from Nicolas Otamendi, surged at the heart of City’s defense and drilled home a low shot.
City now needed two goals to stay alive and the first came within six minutes, Fernandinho running onto the ball after a shot was deflected into his path and driving in a low shot that ricocheted off Leighton Baines and over goalkeeper Joel Robles.
The game was open and exciting, as good as the Liverpool-Stoke second leg on Tuesday was bad. Aguero rifled a 25-meter shot against the post late in the first half and David Silva glanced a header against the post for City soon after the break.
De Bruyne came on for Yaya Toure — to cheers from City fans — and levelled up the semifinal by sidefooting home the cross from Sterling.
Aguero had the final say on the field, once again, while Martinez was left to raise the question about whether technology is needed to adjudicate on clear decisions that are missed by officials.
“It was a game of 180 minutes,” said Pellegrini, preferring to focus elsewhere, “and I think we play this semifinal in an intelligent way.”
Liverpool beat Stoke in a penalty shootout to win the other semifinal.