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Daily Post match report

THE return of Robbie Fowler allowed the Anfield crowd a glimpse of their God – but they left with a hint of the heroes they will be worshipping in the future.

And on last night’s evidence, Nabil El Zhar is in with the best shout after he opened the way for progress to the last eight of the Carling Cup with a stunning long-range strike in front of the Kop on his full debut.

But although the Moroccan’s blue boots helped to shoot down the Bluebirds, there’s no doubt who has succeeded Fowler as Liverpool’s modern-day saviour.

Steven Gerrard, with his third goal in three games, again came to the rescue at the perfect time, slotting in the winner just a minute after Darren Purse’s towering equaliser.

And once again, it’s a good job for Liverpool that their captain has responded to his Merseyside derby substitution with such emphatic answers.

Because overall El Zhar and the crop of fellow youngsters that were given a chance to impress against determined yet limited Championship opposition hardly made the kind of spectacular impact Fowler did when he burst on to the scene in this competition 14 years ago.

But they did enough to ensure the affinity Liverpool have built up with all things related to Cardiff in recent cup competitions continued as they made steady, slow-burning progress to the quarter-finals.

Whatever challenges Rafael Benitez’s shaken-up side faced, however, none was going to be more difficult than wrestling the headlines away from one man.

Fowler first made his mark in the League Cup by scoring his first six Liverpool goals in it – including five against Fulham in the first round second leg in 1993.

Back then, the skinny, short-haired teenager would have had novice defenders like Jack Hobbs and nervous stand-ins like Charles Itandje on toast. But last night you always sensed the biggest cheer the 32-year-old would raise would be when the teams were read out.

The inevitable response Fowler received proved that his popularity will never fade, no matter how much his powers as a player might.

That said, it’s typical of the modern-day Fowler that he’s had a low-key start to life in south Wales yet still maintains a ratio of a goal every other game.

Even last year when his outfield goals were restricted to this competition and a Champions league dead rubber in Turkey, he remained the best natural finisher at the club and can still take penalties with his eyes shut.

If Benitez could have bottled that penalty area prowess in the summer when he waved goodbye to those parts of Fowler that couldn’t live up to top-flight standards any longer, then he surely would have done.

And rather than selling it on, he could have sprinkled across his strikeforce – especially one currently shorn of Fernando Torres – to magically make his problems disappear in a puff of smoke.

The manager expressed concern after last night’s tie that the failure to finish teams off is one of his team’s most irritating habits at the moment.

Peter Crouch is the most likely of the current available crop to fill the target man void and being handed a first start for more than two months finally gave him a decent opportunity to prove it.

But El Zhar and Sebastian Leto were well subdued by City, meaning Crouch was starved of the service he badly needs to get his season – and Liverpool career – up and running again.

Although many of his team-mates will need to do more to convince Benitez that they can become more regular cogs in his rotation system, Crouch will probably have departed Anfield the most frustrated individual.

Partnering Ryan Babel – who teed him up for a late header that Michael Oakes brilliantly tipped away – meant Cardiff had the forward partnership with the most years between them, and also the most pedigree.

But as the night wore on, Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were the irrefutable evidence that the former is more of a hindrance. In fact, Hobbs might have faced scarier prospects if he’d stayed at home and answered Trick or Treat calls all night.

It was an assured evening for the 19-year-old and Itandje also proved an able deputy with a series of smart saves.

Elsewhere, Benitez made fairly routine changes, ensuring an English hub to the side as Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard were retained – the only two who were in the starting line-up against Arsenal on Saturday.

And only Crouch and Alvaro Arbeloa, used as subs in that game, stayed in to make the XI as the manager followed through his hint to give Fabio Aurelio, Babel and Lucas some much-needed game time.

El Zhar came in on the right while Sebastian Leto was handed the opportunity to pretend his ill-fated debut against Marseille never happened in the hope he could thrive in a left-hand side role.

But as you’d expect, it was Fowler who seemed more at home in the early stages, especially when he won a fourth-minute free-kick on the edge of area.

No matter how much Hasselbaink might have fancied it, Fowler was never going to let him unleash one of his famous pile-drivers and curled a shot that was palmed away from the top corner by Itandje.

Although Liverpool gradually settled in, Itandje was still the keeper with the more to do in the first half, again reaching across to his left-hand post to keep out Paul Parry’s downward header.

At the other end, the home side were unable to cause as many problems for Oakes, helped by some tidy and timely challenges in front of him as well as wayward shooting from the likes of Leto and El Zhar, who almost cleared the Cardiff fans as well as the crossbar with an ambitious volley.

Such threats were far too fleeting throughout the first period and a need to step up the urgency must have been one of the top items on the half-time team talk agenda.

It was no surprise, therefore, to see Gerrard advance into Cardiff territory and suck three defenders in, creating the space for El Zhar to drift in from the flank.

But after taking the pass form his skipper, the rest was all his own work as his 30-yard drive swerved past Oakes and in off his right-hand post.

Striking just three minutes into the second half was an ideal safety net for Liverpool as Cardiff’s second half display was every bit as menacing in the second half as it was in the first.

Although Gerrard missed a good chance to make the tie safe, the Bluebirds responded well to going behind as. Hasselbaink’s cross almost looped in at far post then Itandje had to block Joe Ledley’s drive.

Then after 65 minutes, the tie was all square when Parry’s inswinging free-kick was met by the head of the veteran Purse, who directed it into the corner beyond Itandje.

But Cardiff’s celebrations – some cheekily taking place in the Kop – had barely died down when Gerrard exchanged passes with Benayoun and directed the winning goal through Oakes’s legs.

The Welsh side refused to cave in and Aurelio did well to slide in and keep out Parry’s effort but only some alert goalkeeping by Oakes kept the winning margin down in a finale also notable for the return of Harry Kewell.

It marked the start of the Australian’s latest attempt to convince he still has a future at Anfield – but last night it was a venue respectfully reserved for a welcome echo from the past.

LIVERPOOL: Itandje, Arbeloa, Hobbs, Carragher, Aurelio, El Zhar (Kewell 71), Lucas (Mascherano 87), Gerrard, Leto (Benayoun 63), Crouch, Babel. Subs: Martin, Riise.
BOOKINGS: Lucas, Babel

CARDIFF: Oakes, McNaughton (Gunter 84), Purse, Johnson, Capaldi, Ledley, Rae, McPhail (Whittingham 89), Parry, Fowler, Hasselbaink (Thompson 75), Subs: Magennis, Loovens.
BOOKING: McNaughton

REFEREE: Peter Walton

ATT: 41,780

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