IT might not be high on Rafael Benitez's list of priorities, but Robbie Fowler is still very much in love with the League Cup.
From his five-goal calling card back in 1993 against Fulham, through to his wonder-strike in the final against Birmingham City in 2001, Liverpool's prodigal son has profited more than most from the competition. So it was no surprise that Fowler should chose last night to give Benitez a timely reminder of his talents after stepping in from the Anfield wilderness.
Fowler hadn't even been on the substitutes' bench since appearing in the Merseyside derby defeat at Goodison more than six weeks ago. But, as skipper for the evening, he netted a sublime first goal to inspire a much-changed Liverpool towards a Carling Cup fourth round clash at Birmingham City following an ultimately exciting first-ever encounter with Premiership rivals Reading. Fowler's goal was his 28th in 33 games for Liverpool in the competition, moving him ahead of Kenny Dalglish into second place in the club's scoring charts for the League Cup. Only Ian Rush has scored more.
Until his 44th-minute intervention, Fowler's play mirrored that of the team, unsure, lacking in confidence and desperately searching for a spark following the chastening experience at Manchester United at the weekend. Although the personnel was markedly different, Liverpool had struggled in much the same manner as the weeks before against an under-strength Reading.
Fowler's goal, though, lifted the gloom and was the first of three in six minutes with John Arne Riise and debutant Gabriel Paletta giving Benitez's men a seemingly unassailable lead. It wasn't, however. And what should have been a morale-boosting evening ended up raising some familiar questions, as Liverpool almost managed to throw away a three-goal lead inside the final 15 minutes.
Benitez rightly took a positive from his team's second-half showing going forward, and Jermaine Pennant in particular revelled down the right flank, having a hand in all four goals. But it was no coincidence that Liverpool's midfield suddenly became as porous as Reading's back-line the moment Mohamed Sissoko departed with less than half-an-hour remaining. Suddenly, instead of celebrating a comfortable victory the home support were urging referee Peter Walton to blow his final whistle as the visitors threatened to force extra-time after a frantic finish that evoked memories of Liverpool's late collapse against Galatasaray.
As exposed by the Turks, defending from wide areas is proving a major problem as both Andre Bikey and Shane Long capitalised to drag Reading back into the game, their goals sandwiching a Leroy Lita effort that also originated from the flank.
And Pepe Reina, who for three-quarters of the game had appeared confident and assured, became increasingly panicky in the closing moments which in turn put an already jumpy Liverpool defence further on edge.
Benitez admits the Carling Cup is lowest on his list of priorities this season, and there was never any chance of him not altering Liverpool's starting line-up for the 98th successive game. With the likes of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia and Luis Garcia rested, all told there were eight changes from the weekend.
It meant full debuts for young right-back Lee Peltier and Argentine centre-back Paletta, the £2million summer signing from Banfield who lined up alongside Daniel Agger in defence, the Dane sporting a plaster cast to protect the right hand broken while on international duty earlier this month. Peltier didn't do a lot wrong while Paletta appears the archetypal no-nonsense Argentine defender, picking up a booking late on for an agricultural challenge. Young midfielder Danny Guthrie and full-back James Smith also made their first senior appearances as second-half substitutes, but found themselves introduced into a team increasingly on the retreat.
The personnel may have changed but the script was depressingly similar for Liverpool in the first half, the team painfully low on confidence and lacking any cohesion which, given the line-up, wasn't exactly surprising. The torrential rain throughout the day on Merseyside ensured poor playing conditions and the game was littered with overhit passes and players struggling to keep their feet.
Certainly, no-one could have anticipated the game would end a seven-goal thriller after a dismal first 44 minutes.
A low-key opening was livened by the unlikely sight of Sissoko having a shot, the Malian drawing a save from Reading goalkeeper Graham Stack after exchanging passes with Jermaine Pennant.
Reading midfielder John Oster - a more enthusiastic performer than most given his past Everton connections - caused some mild excitement when he nutmegged Stephen Warnock and released a shot that was deflected wide by Agger. So it was completely out of keeping for the game when Liverpool fired a double salvo in the dying moments of the half.
The first was down to a piece of pure impudence from the previously anonymous Fowler.
The striker fed the ball to Pennant and then raced forward between two Reading defenders to receive the return pass before executing a sublime chip with the outside of his left foot to float the ball over the onrushing Stack and into the net. Injury and the sands of time have robbed Fowler of what pace he had, but his clever run on to Pennant's pass showed the mind is still as sharp as ever. His finish merely confirmed his predatory instinct remains intact.
Fowler then turned creator in first-half injury-time, playing a ball that was left by Pennant for Riise to fire in a shot from the edge of the area. The effort was straight at Stack, but the goalkeeper could only parry it straight back into the path of the Norwegian, who struck into the bottom corner with his second attempt.
That half-time scoreline was flattering to the home side, but they forged even further ahead five minutes after break when debutant Paletta rose above Bryn Gunnarsson to head in Pennant's corner from the right.
Fowler, now enjoying himself, flashed an improvised volley that had Stack scrambling across his goal to usher wide and then went close again with a similar effort. In between, Jose Mourinho's friend Stephen Hunt wasted a decent chance to give Reading some hope when he dragged a shot across goal from a good position.
Liverpool were in cruise control, but Steve Coppell's spirited side pulled one back on 75 minutes. Paletta was booked for a foul on Hunt, and from the resultant free-kick Bikey headed in at the far post.
However, Crouch restored Liverpool's three-goal advantage when a one-two with Fowler put the striker clean through and he went around Stack before sliding the ball home, although Reading claimed Gunnarsson had been fouled in the build-up.
Lita scored the visitors' second nine minutes before full-time with a neat finish after some poor defending from Liverpool, and Long ensured a frantic finale by heading in Glen Little's cross, again from the left. Substitute Dirk Kuyt hit the crossbar with a spectacular late strike while an increasingly erratic Reina meant Reading were always in with a chance until the end of four minutes of injury time.
LIVERPOOL (4-4-2) line up at LFChistory.net
READING (4-3-2-1): Stack, De la Cruz, Bikey, Ingimarsson, Halls, Little, Gunnarsson (Sodje 83), Oster, Hunt, Lita, Long. Subs: Hahnemann, Hayes, Osano, Joseph-Dubois.
REFEREE: P Walton.
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