Football can be a harlot with its affections. Liverpool welcomed Robbie Fowler into a warm embrace last night but his "home-coming" demonstrated that his place at the heart of Anfield affections and aspirations now belongs to someone else.
That someone, of course, is Steven Gerrard, who exchanged shirts with the Cardiff City striker on the final whistle having swapped a night off for Rafael Benítez's 90 minutes of need. He responded with the clinical winning goal that sent Liverpool into the quarter-finals of a competition that ranks fourth on the manager's priority list this season, but that retains its capacity for welcome distractions. Against a dogged Cardiff team that belied their Championship troubles, this was such an occasion for a Liverpool manager beset by injuries and inquests. The identity of the man who provided a release, and holds the key to Liverpool's emergence from their trough, held no surprise.
"The last person you want to see driving at you like that is Steven Gerrard," said Dave Jones, after the Liverpool captain had, within 60 seconds, shattered Cardiff's elation at drawing level. "Rafa has shown us a lot of respect by playing the best midfielder in Britain, Europe and most of the world. He is the one who has killed us tonight, and the one I will ask my son to duff up tomorrow."
Benítez admitted Gerrard would not have been playing but for the illness that took Mohamed Sissoko out of his plans against Arsenal and Cardiff, plus the injuries collected by Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, who made a late appearance as a substitute here having damaged his foot on Sunday. Jones's ire, however, was fuelled more by criticism of his under-achieving team than the fates that conspired against his Carling Cup journey, and he appeared to be feeling the pressure in a bitter post-match rant aimed at his detractors.
"You wouldn't understand how disappointed I am to lose here," said the former Everton player. "Unless you have played football you wouldn't understand and I hope you all have a shit journey home." Charming.
Benítez has endured similar pressure of late but would not succumb to such pettiness - not in public anyhow. With a side showing nine changes to Sunday's starting line-up but suggesting the strength of the squad is improving after all, the Liverpool manager was treated to a tie of rich opportunity for both teams, with the home side always the more convincing once they had recovered from another ponderous start.
Fowler almost scored for old time's sake in front of the Kop after four minutes only for Charles Itandje to prove equal to his free-kick on what developed into a fruitful night for the languid Liverpool reserve goalkeeper. Following glaring misses from Ryan Babel and the Brazilian midfielder Lucas the opening goal arrived from another of Liverpool's raw recruits, Nabil El Zhar, when he drove a wonderful shot beyond Michael Oakes from 25 yards. "A great goal in front of the Kop. That is very positive for him," said Benítez of his midfield import from St-Etienne.
El Zhar's time in the spotlight lasted all of 17 minutes before Cardiff's captain, Darren Purse, rose above Jamie Carragher to head Paul Parry's deep free-kick beyond Itandje, but that was an eternity compared to the duration of Welsh joy.
Less than a minute later Gerrard and the substitute Yossi Benayoun combined down the Liverpool left and the captain, having earlier squandered a fine opening, applied a simple execution to the Israeli's cross and to Cardiff's hopes. Fowler took his bow, the last to leave and with a word of appreciation in his ear from Benítez, but the night did not belong to "God".
48' El Zhar 1-0
65' 1-1 Purse
66' Gerrard 2-1
Charles Itandje, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Jack Hobbs, Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva (Javier Mascherano), Sebastian Leto (Yossi Benayoun), Ryan Babel, Peter Crouch, Nabil El Zhar (Harry Kewell)
Michael Oakes, Roger Johnson, Kevin McNaughton (Chris Gunter), Darren Purse, Tony Capaldi, Joe Ledley, Stephen McPhail (Peter Whittingham), Paul Parry, Gavin Rae, Robbie Fowler, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (Steven Thompson)
Referee: Walton, P
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