After another testing evening for Brendan Rodgers’ out-of-form side, Liverpool finally overcome Championship side Middlesbrough in the Capital One Cup via an extraordinary penalty shootout…
The Northern Irishman made a host of changes ahead of Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, including handing 17-year-old midfielder Jordan Rossiter a debut and naming summer acquisition Rickie Lambert as captain.
Both sides made a lively enough start in dreary conditions in L4 with Boro deploying a refreshingly positive approach for an away side at Anfield.
Despite plenty of endeavour, neither team had created much in the way of chances in the opening stages until the hosts were suddenly gifted a 10th minute lead.
After making a smart stop to deny Lambert on the edge of his area, loanee keeper Jamal Blackman got himself in a muddle and failed to prevent Rossiter’s long-range follow-up from finding the back of the net.
It was a fairytale moment for the local lad who becomes the club’s second youngest ever scorer behind Michael Owen.
In truth the goal had little impact on proceedings though as the visitors continued to more than match their more illustrious opponents.
They even had a dominant spell around the 35 minute mark, forcing Mignolet into action on a number of occasions, including a smart diving stop to keep out a swerving drive from Lee Tomlin.
Liverpool had generally looked neat in possession but, not for the first time this season, a cutting edge was sorely lacking.
Often bright moments from the likes of Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana were undone by poor decision making or control, often with Lambert the unwitting culprit.
A purposeful run and shot from Tomlin whizzed marginally wide as Boro showed an early sign of intent at the start of the second half.
A strong penalty appeal came and went for Liverpool when Kenneth Omeruo pushed Kolo Toure over at a corner, unlike a couple of earlier handball shouts referee Mike Jones could easily have given it.
Aitor Karanka’s men made the most of the reprieve shortly after the hour mark when an excellent free-kick delivery from Grant Leadbitter was glanced home from close-range by Adam Reach.
Questions will no doubt be asked in some quarters about the amount of vacant space between keeper and defenders but crosses with such pace and whip are always a nightmare to counteract.
The goal appeared to give the Reds a much-needed wake up call as Sterling went close on a couple of occasion soon afterwards.
Some smart footwork from Lallana lead to another penalty claim but almost everything of note was coming through Sterling, his pace and close-control regularly proving impossible for left-back George Friend to combat.
Boro were still existing as an attacking threat on the break though and Adam Clayton forced a good stop out of Simon Mignolet before Toure did excellent to block the follow-up.
Mario Balotelli looked lively after coming on for the frustrated Lambert while Jordan Williams seamlessly replaced his regular U21 colleague Rossiter to make a debut of his own.
Despite Liverpool looking by far the more likely, Clayton actually went the closest to finding a winner in normal time when hitting the post from a tight angle following a great reverse pass from the impressive Tomlin.
Although ex-Liverpool defender Daniel Ayala can count himself slightly fortunate not to have given away a penalty after handling a cross deep into stoppage time.
Lucas Leiva and Lazar Markovic failed to capitalise on brief sights of goal at the start of extra-time before Suso replaced the latter for his first competitive appearance in over a year.
As the additional period progressed Boro, perhaps understandably, became more and more defensively minded but, without any width to their play, Balotelli and co. remained fairly easy to contain.
In the second period Blackman, who had remained relatively underworked all night, made two good stops in quick succession to deny Jose Enrique and then Sterling.
Another goal finally started to appear imminent and so it would prove in the 108th minute when great combination play down the left from Lallana and Enrique ended with Suso sweeping home through a crowded box.
Despite the opposition chucking on a couple of extra forwards and committing more men forward, Liverpool were seeing out the remaining minutes totally untroubled until a last gasp moment of madness.
The otherwise exceptional Sterling needlessly gave away possession on the halfway line and Boro substitute Patrick Bamford was then sent sprawling by Toure, before picking himself up and forcing penalties from the spot.
The incident pretty much summed up Liverpool’s season so far and Sterling compounded his mistake by missing an opportunity to win the subsequent shootout in regulation.
Fortunately, after both sets of players, including the goalkeepers, had already taken once, Albert Adomah eventually became the fallguy by missing with the score at 14-13.
It was an astonishing end to an otherwise largely nondescript evening that had again evidenced just how far from top form the Merseysiders currently are.
Hopefully squeezing through to round four in such circumstances will signal an impending upturn in fortunes.
The evidence suggests otherwise though and, with Everton equally in need of a morale-boosting win, Saturday’s meeting is massive.
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