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FA Cup joy sealed with a kiss

THERE were no giant killings at Deepdale on Saturday, but Liverpool’s victory over Preston still featured the most romantic of endings.

While his team mates trudged off the pitch safe in the knowledge that their mission had been accomplished, Steven Gerrard stood in front of the Bill Shankly stand and blew kisses to the 5,000 travelling Liverpool fans.

It had been that kind of evening for the Reds skipper.

An evening when he had come through one of the biggest tests he has faced as a player thanks to his own strength of mind and character but also the love and encouragement of those who support him.

Who said there is no romance in the FA Cup anymore?

Anyone looking for chinks to be revealed in Gerrard’s armour following the kind of week that would test the strongest of characters will have been left disappointed as not only did he come through this examination, he did so with flying colours as the best player on the pitch – again.

There had been suggestions that Gerrard’s first game since his arrest would see him targeted by opposition players and fans who would seek to wind him up.

There was no chance of the former happening at Preston, a club with a proud reputation of playing football the right way and with one of football’s gentlemen running the show in the form of Alan Irvine.

The Preston boss deserves a lot of credit for the way his team conducted itself in defeat because clearly there had been no directive to wind Gerrard up physically or mentally in the hope of making him crack.

The home fans started off booing Liverpool’s captain but by the time the 90 minutes were up they were applauding him thanks to his latest in an ever lengthening line of command shows.

There are times at the moment when Gerrard looks capable of hurting defences almost at will.

Playing mainly on the half-turn to give himself a full picture of where the ball is coming from and where it will be going to once he has collected it, the 28-year-old is revelling in his role just off a main striker.

Last week, Joe Kinnear hailed Gerrard as the best player he has seen in a long time. This week, Irvine said his players could not wait to share a pitch with someone he and they consider a modern great.

Unfortunately for both of them, their admiration did not win them any favours as Gerrard and his team mates showed why they are becoming increasingly regarded as genuine contenders for the biggest prizes.

The football Liverpool played at Deepdale may not have been as uproarious or as easy on the eye as it had been at St James’ Park six days earlier, nor did they ever threaten to give Preston keeper Andy Lonergan the kind of sleepless nights that have left Shay Given desperate to leave Newcastle behind.

But their performance was professional, restrained and it was more than enough for the Reds to book their place in the fourth round.

Job done in other words.

Liverpool’s recent history is littered with cup exits at the hands of lower division sides with Barnsley, Burnley, Crystal Palace, Bristol City and Bolton all having played David to the Anfield outfit’s Goliath since 1992.

Preston set out to add their name to that list but although they produced a predictable early storm it was not all that fierce and it had all but blown itself out by the time Albert Riera had given Liverpool the lead after 24 minutes.

In his short time with the Reds, the Spanish winger has shown that given time and space he can do no little damage with his left foot.

So it was surprising in the extreme to see the Preston defence back off Riera and allow him all the time and space he needed to unleash an exocet into the roof of Lonergan’s net.

If things were going as well for Robbie Keane as they are for his fellow summer signing, the former Spurs man would have walked off the Deepdale pitch clutching the match ball.

Unfortunately for the Irishman, he is going through a spell where pretty much everything that can go wrong does go wrong.

Even when he hit the goal trail against Bolton on Boxing Day he was left out of the routing of Newcastle two days later, thereby denying him the opportunity to build up some much needed striking rhythm.

But even that cannot excuse the chances Keane missed at Preston with one in particular from an inch perfect Gerrard cross likely to be already marked down for the annual football bloopers video.

Swearing may have been banned in Preston by the council recently, but Keane’s profligacy would have left the Liverpool fans cursing had the hosts managed to take advantage of it by mounting an unlikely comeback.

North End clearly took confidence from the fact that Liverpool never put themselves out of sight despite their superiority, and the second half was turned into the kind of contest that it should never have been allowed to.

Any doubts about the outcome of the tie were finally put beyond doubt in stoppage time, when Gerrard unselfishly teed up substitute Fernando Torres for the kind of tap in that forwards dream of, particularly one who has spent far too much of the last couple of months on the treatment table.

Liverpool had made life difficult for themselves but their final flourish was more than enough to ensure they would take their place in the last 32 of a competition they have already won once before under Rafa Benitez.

The Reds boss was back in the dug-out on Saturday, and like everyone else at Deepdale, Benitez will have been thoroughly impressed by the performance of his captain.

Gerrard may not have capped his display with a goal, but at least he sealed it with a kiss.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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