Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho scored spectacular late goals to secure progression to the fifth round of the FA Cup at the expense of Bolton Wanderers in dramatic fashion at the Macron Stadium last night.
Neil Lennon’s men had taken the lead thanks to a harshly given but clinically dispatched Eidur Gudjohnsen penalty on the hour mark. However, the dismissal of Neil Danns with 25 minutes remaining after his second rash challenge on Joe Allen changed the game, and the Reds’ best two performers this season produced the goods when it mattered most to keep the Merseysiders’ Cup dream alive.
Skipper Steven Gerrard returned to the starting line-up to make incredibly his 700th appearance for the Reds, becoming only the third player in Liverpool’s illustrious history to achieve the remarkable feat. He played in the centre of midfield alongside Joe Allen, as Henderson and Lucas were rested. Returning slowly to action after injury, Daniel Sturridge started on the bench once again, while Balotelli was thankfully nowhere to be seen.
|700 not out for the skipper|
With both teams mirroring each other’s formation and adopting an attacking approach, the opening stages were unusually open, with the frequent occurrence of counter attacks producing an enjoyable contest in keeping with the esteemed traditions of the FA Cup.
Rodgers’ men were slightly in the ascendancy, Gerrard side-footing straight at Lonergan, who also denied Sterling and saw Coutinho drag an effort from range wide in the opening 15 minutes. The hosts more than held their own, however, and maintained an attacking threat, Gudjohnsen blazing over when well placed in a manner reminiscent of the goal-scoring opportunities he spurned at Anfield and Wheater calling Mignolet into action with a downward header from Feeney’s free kick.
The best chance of the half came on the hour half mark when Sterling hit the woodwork. Moreno had squared the ball to Lallana, who spun on the edge of the box and then played in Sterling. The youngster cleverly worked some space for himself by adjusting his feet, but agonisingly saw his bending right footed shot bounce back off the post with the keeper beaten.
It was a great effort on goal but Liverpool just lacked that bit of luck that you need sometimes. At times, it felt like bad fortune was going to cost the Reds dearly last night, as not only were they repeatedly denied by the woodwork, they were also on the receiving end of some poor decisions from the match officials.
At the end of the first half, Raheem Sterling was wrongly flagged offside when clean through on goal and also inexplicably refused a free kick when quite clearly clipped by Bolton defender Dorian Dervite as he embarked on a similar run down the centre. Worst of all, referee Roger East awarded the Championship side a highly questionable spot kick 13 minutes after the restart.
19-year old Zach Clough knocked the ball past Martin Skrtel and then went to ground under the slightest of touches from the Slovakian centre back. Contentiously, East pointed to the spot and Gudjohnsen did the rest, calmly converting past Mignolet from 12 yards.
|Gudjohnsen converts a controversial penalty|
It was an unbelievable decision and one that could have proved particularly costly, but, to be fair to East, he made a correct and important call five minutes later, as he showed Danns a second yellow for his second dangerous challenge on Joe Allen of the match. Admittedly, the referee had no choice as, despite Neil Lennon’s ludicrous post-match protestations, Danns clrearly had to be sent for an earlier bath. However, considering his performance up to that point, it wouldn’t have been entirely surprising if he’d been unduly lenient on Bolton’s number 18.
Unexpectedly, immediately after the sending off Bolton had two great opportunities to score a second and give Liverpool a mountain to climb. First, Clough ran the length of the pitch but fired just wide. Then, Gudjohnsen’s header from Feeney’s fantastic cross was weak and thus unable to trouble Mignolet from close range. The Icelandic striker really should have done better, and will be ruing his inability to direct a decent header goalwards today.
With time running out, Rodgers went all out for victory, sending on Fabio Borini and Daniel Sturridge and pushing Emre Can higher up the pitch as Liverpool pressed the matter in order to keep their Cup dream alive. Thankfully, the strategy eventually paid dividends, although travelling Kopites suffered some nervy moments as the clock ticked down and the visitors continued to be frustrated by a combination of good defending and bad luck.
Henderson’s deflected strike hit the post and Can’s curling effort was brilliantly tipped on to the bar by Lonergan, while Sterling was denied by excellent last ditch defending by Dervite as the Reds wondered whether it was just not going to be their night.
To Rodgers’ relief, the breakthrough finally came with four minutes of normal time left. The superb Can dinked a wonderful pass over the top and into the path of Sterling, who peeled away from his marker and magnificently struck a first time volley through Lonergan’s legs and into the net with his weaker left foot.
|A superb finish from Sterling|
It was an excellent goal, but not enough to satisfy Liverpool, who tasted blood and wanted to kill off Bolton and win the tie without the need for extra time. Borini’s tame header was saved by the keeper and Gerrard’s shot from the edge of the box was blocked, before Philippe Coutinho produced a magical goal worthy of winning any Cup tie in the first minute of injury time.
Cutting in from the left, the diminutive Brazilian fired a stunning strike that flew in off the bar, giving the goalkeeper absolutely no chance. Critics say that Coutinho’s main weakness is his lack of an end product, and that was only his third goal of the season, but if he can keep up his current form and give us more moments like that, then he’ll justify the new and improved contract he recently signed and put himself in contention for Liverpool’s player of the season prize.
|The match-winner Coutinho is mobbed by his teammates|
It might have seemed in doubt at some stages last night, but Liverpool’s dream of seeing skipper Steven Gerrard lift the FA Cup at Wembley on his birthday after his final game in a Red shirt is still alive thanks to the brilliance of Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho.
Perhaps just as importantly, the Merseysiders’ momentum has been maintained ahead of crucial upcoming League matches against local rivals Everton and fellow contenders for Champions League qualification Tottenham Hotspur.