Rafael Benítez claims to have constructed the strongest squad of his Liverpool reign but it took the intervention of a Pope to spare him an inquisition on that score here. A minute remained at Anfield when Tom Pope, Crewe's latest coveted youngster, slid towards the Kop goal with an equaliser and extra-time his for the taking. One glaring miss from four yards later, and Liverpool were in the fourth round.
It should never have been so close. Against a League One team that paid to go on the Anfield tour last week to get acquainted with Premier League facilities, Liverpool dominated. Yet, as against Stoke City on Saturday and on countless occasions under Benítez, they were unable to create a comfort zone with their superiority and ended with Fernando Torres thrown into the fray and looking, as the manager admitted, nervous. Pope's late miss and a half-chance for Anthony Elding seconds later injected tension where there should have been a procession for Liverpool. Instead, Crewe were left to ponder what might have been.
"It was an isolated chance but that was the one that had to go in for us," rued the Crewe manager, Steve Holland. "But the fact we had a chance of getting something so late on showed what a decent performance we gave."
Benítez, despite an outstanding opening strike from Daniel Agger and a brave header from Lucas Leiva that sealed the victory, could not pay the same salute to his side. "We had enough chances but, as always in these games, you need a third goal to kill the tie and when we couldn't get it we became nervous."
The Liverpool manager offered no encouragement last night to the home-grown products of the academy system. Only one player on parade had emerged through the Anfield youth ranks and he represented Crewe, the centre-half Danny O'Donnell, and there was no place in the 18-man squad for five British youngsters who make up the nationalised contingent on Liverpool's Champions League roster.
Liverpool still possessed players with a point to prove, however, with Jermaine Pennant initially impressing on his first appearance of the season and Agger driving the home side into a lead with a 22-yard free-kick on his first outing since August 13. What could have been the cue for Crewe to fold brought them to life and they levelled 10 minutes later when debutant goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri parried a Calvin Zola header and Michael O'Connor bundled in from close range.
Lucas' header from Pennant's intelligent cross settled the game but it was indicative of the performance and Torres' need for a goal that the Spanish international was introduced with 24 minutes to play. "We needed to give Torres a game and tried to give him a goal," admitted Benítez, who lost Philipp Degen to two broken ribs on his Liverpool debut.
Diego Cavalieri, Philipp Degen (Jamie Carragher, 73), Sami Hyypia, Emiliano Insua, Daniel Agger, Damien Plessis, Lucas Leiva, Jermaine Pennant, Ryan Babel, Nabil El Zhar (Robbie Keane, 87), David N'Gog (Fernando Torres, 66)
Crewe Alexandra Steve Collis, Danny Woodards, Julien Baudet, Billy Jones, Danny O'Donnell, James Bailey, Mark Carrington (Joel Grant, 81), Michael O'Connor, Tom Pope (Anthony Elding, 87), Calvin Zola (Shaun Miller, 78), Byron Moore
Referee Oliver, M
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