Good thing Steven Gerrard still plays for Liverpool. Otherwise, the Reds might have joined the ranks of slain giants in the soccer world’s oldest competition.
Liverpool defeated Wimbledon 2-1 on Monday at Kingsmeadow in the third round of the FA Cup. Gerrard led the way by scoring two fine goals in his first game since he announced his impending departure from Liverpool. Had Gerrard’s heavy heart further dulled his sharpness, Liverpool either might be facing the prospect of a replay or tough questions about their early exit at the hands of an opponent from three divisions below.
Gerrard’s goals, a close-range header in the 12th minute and a superb free kick in the 62nd, won the game but masked an uninspired performance from the Reds. Liverpool epitomized the derisive term “possession without menace” for much of the contest. The Reds dominated the ball and largely rooted the game in Wimbledon’s half, but they only tested goalkeeper James Shea twice in the first 65 minutes.
The troubling statistic represents a breakdown in Liverpool’s new system. Adam Lallana’s thigh injury and Raheem Sterling’s deserved rest prevented both from playing. Philippe Coutinho was the lone holdover in the front three. Rickie Lambert started as the center forward, and Gerrard also lined up in an advance role. Gerrard scored early, but he struggled mightily to connect with his teammates in the first half. Neither Coutinho nor Lambert put a shot on goal for almost 70 minutes.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers also changed both wide midfielders, as Lazar Markovic and Javier Manquillo started on the left and right, respectively. Manquillo assisted on Gerrard’s first goal but wasn’t a constant threat on his side. Markovic used his speed to push into great positions, but his final ball was missing when the Reds needed it most. The Serbian has scored only one goal in the first 18 games of his Liverpool career. He has yet to register an assist.
Defensively, Liverpool was Liverpool. Wimbledon was dangerous on its rare forays forward. Midfielder Sean Rigg had two great chances to score in the first half-hour. He wasted the first, and goalkeeper Simon Mignolet saved the other. Striker Matt Tubbs also could have struck in the 33rd minute, but he too missed the target. Liverpool was shaky at the back, and it was no surprise when striker Adebayo Akinfenwa, soccer’s strongest man, nearly brought down the house when he scored in the 32nd minute. Predictably, Liverpool conceded on a set piece.
The second half followed a similar path as the first. Wimbledon was determined and energetic but lacked quality and sharpness in the final third. Liverpool was composed on the ball, vulnerable without it and utterly ordinary overall.
Gerrard provided the difference with a perfectly placed free kick midway through the second half. The longtime Liverpool captain rescued his team once again. Liverpool will celebrate its progress to the fourth round — where it will host Bolton at Anfield — but the fact that Gerrard needed to don his superman cape against a lower-league foe is something to worry about amid the reveling.
Thumbnail photo via LiverpoolFC.com