The talismanic club captain rescued the Reds yet again last night, as Liverpool emerged from a tricky FA Cup third round tie at AFC Wimbledon thanks to two goals from the skipper. He was the difference between the two teams, who were otherwise quite evenly matched as the Reds were severely tested by their League Two hosts.
Dominant during the opening stages, a strong Liverpool side enjoyed a remarkable 77% of possession in the first 20 minutes and fully deserved the one-goal lead that their number eight secured after 12 minutes. Gerrard ghosted into the box, shielded by the run of the otherwise disappointingly quiet Rickie Lambert, and got on the end of Javier Manquillo’s cross, deftly guiding it into the net with a clever header.
|Gerrard celebrates with Manquillo and Lambert after opening the scoring|
That proved to be the Reds’ final chance of securing a second before the home side upped their game and fought their way back into the contest. Encouraged by their manager Neil Ardley to push further forward and put their visitors’ shaky defence under pressure, AFC Wimbledon enjoyed a concerted spell of pressure, Rigg forcing Mingolet into a great save and Tubbs hooking just wide after Liverpool failed to deal with a long ball forward.
They eventually got the equaliser that their resurgence deserved on 36 minutes, as the away side’s defence capitulated at a corner kick with depressing predictability. Mignolet embarrassingly flapped at a left wing corner, and the ball bounced around in the box before finally falling for Adebayo Akinfenwa.
|Liverpool's defence needs to take a Defending 101 class|
The first half ended with Henderson shooting out of the ground, while the second half started with another scare from a corner kick for Liverpool. Gerrard’s presence on the line was the only thing that prevented AFC Wimbledon’s Gillingham loanee Adam Barrett giving the League Two side the lead with a powerful header from a set piece.
Thankfully, though, after Rigg’s angled shot flew over the bar, Liverpool regained control, Henderson frustratingly seeing Manquillo block his goal-bound shot, Coutinho firing a decent opportunity wide and referee Jon Moss turning down the Reds’ penalty appeals after Barry Fuller, admittedly inadvertently, handled in the penalty area.
Fuller may have got away with his handball, but he wasn’t so fortunate a few minutes later when he hacked Coutinho down on the edge of the box with an agricultural tackle. The number 2 was rightly booked, but, more worryingly for AFC Wimbledon, Steven Gerrard was presented the opportunity to fire at goal from an inviting position similar to the one from which he levelled against Basel in December. The skipper stood up and superbly curled into the top corner to regain the lead for Liverpool.
|Gerrard curled home a beautiful second goal|
Gerrard was at the heart of everything good for the Reds, causing all sorts of problems for AFC Wimbledon as he routinely picked up the ball in acres of space and drove at their tiring defence. He was the one who set up Lambert to side-foot a tame shot goalwards that was kept out by Shea on 69 minutes, and Shea was scrambling across his goal a few moments later as Gerrard sent an ambitious effort just wide of the post from a free kick 35 yards out.
The skipper provided another assist for Coutinho, who wasted a good opportunity from seven yards out, while Markovic also should have done better when one-on-one with the keeper on 86 minutes. The number 50 was replaced by Toure for the final few minutes, as Liverpool decided to shut up shop and hold on to what they had. AFC Wimbledon searched for a second equaliser, substitute Azeez going close in injury time, but the Merseysiders just about stood firm.
In fact, with almost the last kick of the match Gerrard was denied the hat-trick his performance deserved as Callum Kennedy cleared off the line to prevent him concluding a counter attack with a third Liverpool goal. Gerrard taking the match ball home would have been fitting after he was the Cup hero yet again. His match winning performance was the highlight of the tie, but it evoked conflicting emotions among Kopites.
On the one hand, it was brilliant to see Stevie hitting top form as he enters his final few months at the club. On the other, his display served to show what Liverpool will be missing when he moves on, and it would be slightly disconcerting if he was our best player come the end of the season. The Reds need to be producing players ready to take the load once Gerrard has gone, not overly relying on their departing hero.
Nonetheless, the most important thing is that Liverpool are through and will face Bolton Wanderers at home in the fourth round, meaning a return to Anfield for the legendary Emile Heskey. Hopefully the Reds will easily negotiate that tie, keeping them on the road to Wembley for the FA Cup final on 30th May, which just so happens to be Steven Gerrard’s 35th birthday. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.