A famous afternoon for Barnsley ended deliriously with ladles of the stuff footballing dreams often promise yet hardly ever deliver. While there was a supreme display of goalkeeping from Luke Steele - who signed for the club only on Thursday - at the business end of the team Brian Howard proved yet again how sport can provide the most sublime of life-affirming moments.
The three minutes of added time were virtually up when Barnsley's captain pounced following hesitation from Xabi Alonso. In front of the Kop and the 42,449 inside Anfield, the former Swindon midfielder danced forward before unleashing the sweetest of left-foot finishes from the edge of the area. It was a winner that instantly made him a hero for the remainder of his days. It was also a goal that dumped the seven-times FA Cup winners out of the competition and leaves only two of the so-called big four in the draw, which offers real hope that a club beyond that quartet might win the thing for the first time since 1995.
For Rafael Benítez the result, of course, hardly helps, and the Liverpool manager again fielded an under-strength side who missed Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina, with Steven Gerrard on the bench. 'Frustrating,' was his verdict. 'Despite all the chances we created, we could not kill the match.'
The Spaniard was right to feel exasperated, but Liverpool fans will be more than angry at the selection - especially the option of not having Torres on the bench. 'We decided not to risk him,' Benítez explained. 'And then we concede in the last minutes. With the chances we created, we still lose and it's difficult to explain.'
Asked whether he regretted the inclusion of Charles Itandje for Reina, Benítez said of a goalkeeper who hardly convinced: 'Not really. I cannot blame him. And I have just told the players that I cannot fault how they worked.'
Also without blemish was Barnsley's spirit and, as the match grew older, their snap in the challenge and class moving forward. Their manager Simon Davey had promised to follow Havant & Waterlooville's example in the previous round here and have a go. That was probably wise as his side began with Steele, a third-choice keeper signed only because of Tony Warner's ineligibility and injury to Heinz Muller. This also, of course, allowed the possibility of the old trophy to sprinkle some of its magic.
In the first half Steele had several stand-out moments. There was an 18th-minute denial of Peter Crouch close in. A superb save from an Alonso 20-yard shot that was heading for the top corner followed and the 23-year-old intervened. And a further stop from Crouch also came, close to the interval.
Barnsley had begun by creating the first opening, when Martin Devaney - who would create the equaliser - sent in a ball from the right that was cleaned up by Jamie Carragher. His team also might have scored just before the half-hour when Sami Hyypia dawdled to allow Daniel Nardiello to run on and draw a good save from Itandje.
Liverpool's goal came after 32 minutes, and on a different afternoon it might have begun a rout. Ryan Babel dribbled and left the right-back Bobby Hassell on his rear inside the area. The Dutchman's cut-back allowed Dirk Kuyt his first goal in 14 games, but the forward later missed a series of chances that continue to litter his disappointing season.
Proceedings following the interval had been dour until Barnsley equalised, but from then it got interesting. As Alonso would do later, Lucas lost possession terribly near his 18-yard line.
Now came Devaney's moment. The winger collected, then twisted to whip in a cross that allowed Stephen Foster to meet it with his head. The defender, who also scored the equaliser against Blackpool in the third round, made no mistake.
That came 57 minutes in, but a period of desperate rearguard action from Barnsley followed as Steele added more and more to his memories of the game.
Hyypia should have scored, but scuffed a shot from close range straight at the goalkeeper. Seconds later Lucas thought he had managed the trick, but Steele this time tipped on to the bar before collecting the ball.
His next save, from Yossi Benayoun, who surged past a number of defenders to rifle a shot, was arguably the best. As Barnsley took heart and became sharper in the tackle, Benítez was staring at a replay at least. If only.
On came the cavalry for Liverpool with first Harry Kewell, then Gerrard, ordered on in the closing minutes.
For a moment it appeared they might do it. The captain began with a driving run that took him into Barnsley's area and forced a corner. Kewell then looked to have grabbed the winner with a vicious 20-yard volley that skimmed the bar. It was Steele, again, who saved Barnsley the next time -five minutes of normal time remaining when he tipped Kuyt's close-range shot over.
But it was Barnsley's and Howard's day. As Davey said: 'There was no coming back from that goal. We came to Anfield and won. Unbelievable.'
Barnsley will now pray for a home tie. The rest of the draw will hope to avoid them. Benítez, meanwhile, will pray for more Champions League glory. Or he may need a new job.
Man of the match - Luke Steele
Signed on loan from West Bromwich on Thursday, his debut was a performance that allowed his new club and their fans a famous triumph. Showed no nerves as he made save after save and also displayed excellent handling. Deserves to wake with a decent hangover.
32' Kuyt 1-0
57' 1-1 Foster
64' Diego Leon
90' 1-2 Howard
Charles Itandje, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia, Xabi Alonso, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas Leiva (Steven Gerrard), John Arne Riise, Ryan Babel (Harry Kewell), Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt
Luke Steele, Steve Foster, Bobby Hassell, Rob Kozluk (Marciano van Homoet), Franca Anderson Silva, Martin Devaney, Ayarza Diego Leon (Jamal Campbell-Ryce), Brian Howard, Istvan Ferenczi, Daniel Nardiello (Kayode Odejayi), Dennis Souza
Referee: Atkinson, M
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