Don’t let the scoreline fool you; it was much scarier than that. With the match seemingly wrapped up, Liverpool implode midway through the second half to give Notts County a lifeline before capping off a crumbling display by conceding on the counter-attack. Cue extra time; extra time midweek against a League One side who have won once since the season started.
Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge looked to have wrapped things up with a bow in the first half, but the England striker would be called upon again as the Reds went down to ten men in extra time. With Kolo Toure stretchered off with a groin injury and Brendan Rodgers having already used his three substitutes for three other injuries, this particular play had veered vastly off script.
A goal within the opening four minutes through an industrious Raheem Sterling saw Liverpool take a firm hand in what should have been a stroll in the park from the get go. The diminutive winger was looking for a slot in this Sunday’s showpiece fixture with Manchester United, and with a call-up to the senior England squad putting a feather in his cap, the youngster would jink through two defenders to slot home past Bartosz Bialkowski and get his side off on a flier.
Brendan Rodgers, looking to avoid previous mistakes made in the League Cup, named a side peppered with first team regulars as Andre Wisdom, Luis Alberto, Jordan Ibe and Joe Allen and Aly Cissokho all found their way into the squad. With a handful of players rested, things were rolling along peachy-keen until Cissokho, on the pitch for less than ten minutes, had to be subbed off for Daniel Agger after a challenge from Notts County defender Jamal Campbell-Rice tweaked the Frenchman’s ankle. Injuries — like shots that hit the woodwork — are the bane of a manager’s existence and we’d see both early on as an Agger header crashed off the post within minutes of coming on.
Sterling would look to double his tally as he ran circles around the Magpies defence, but it would be Daniel Sturridge — already in such a rich vein of goalscoring form — who would put his side two to the good when a flowing move would end with a picture perfect Steven Gerrard through-ball and the ever so familiar sight of the England striker’s trademark dance. Agger would again come close, this time from a Gerrard corner and the Captain would smack one against the post before the half-ended and as Brendan Rodgers headed to the locker room, the only conceivable thought on his mind would have been to close this one out.
Mustapha Dumbuya would fire a tame warning shot as the visitors worked their way back into the match and the second half heated up, but it would be Callum McGregor — on loan from Scottish side Celtic until January — who would start the turn around when two corners in quick succession saw Joss Labadie put a header just off target before he’d force Simon Mignolet into a low save from distance. With an hour gone and the 3,000 visiting fans finding their voice, it was time for the Liverpool of old to make an appearance.
It was either going to be a set-piece or a counter-attack that would get the visitors back in this and it would be both that would inconceivably draw them level before the final whistle blew. A deep free kick would find the head of Magpies defender Manny Smith on the edge of the area, and with the Liverpool defenders unsure of how to play it, he’d send a looping header in for Yoann Arquin — cast adrift for much of the match — to head in against the underside of the bar.
If seeing County grow in confidence wasn’t bad enough, having Jordan Henderson subbed on for the injured Joe Allen would only add to our woes as another first team regular was called upon to mop this calamity up; unfortunately, his presence wouldn’t be felt until extra time as the visitors completed their comeback six minutes from time when the Martinique striker, having found himself in space after a quick counter-attack, cut the ball back for former Chelsea striker Adam Coombes to finish with aplomb.
Brendan Rodgers would be furious with his side for conceding two sloppy goals and things would go from bad to worse when Philippe Coutinho would have to be subbed on as youngster Luis Alberto limped off. With his three substitutions already made, the Reds would be reduced to ten men when Kolo Toure — the standout performer in Liverpool’s opening matches — went down with a groin injury.
The tabloid writers were already working on damning back pages before Sturridge saved his boss the blushes when Coutinho, as per usual, played a beautiful ball that would find the English striker racing in through the left channel. His low shot really should have been swatted away by Bialkowski, but it would slip under his arm and trickle into the net as the Reds hopped back the drivers seat. Five minutes later, Jordan Henderson would cap this one off when Agger’s long, low pass was moved on by Sturridge for the onrushing midfielder to nutmeg Gary Liddle and fire past the Magpies ‘keeper from the top of the box.
A win’s a win and progression in the domestic cups is a healthy distraction from a lack of European football, but progression tonight should never have been this hard. If we need extra-time to put away a struggling League One side — one blighted by injuries no less — hosting a team like Manchester United this weekend will be interesting indeed.