Luton Town v Liverpool - Excellent FA Cup Saturday finish
The best FA Cup tie on Saturday saved to last. From the start, Luton Town had little fear and much more courage than anticipated. They have won more at home this season and have emerged from the lower leagues to the Championship and at the moment are settled three places from the play-offs in 9th place. But on paper their form seemed impressive, while on the BBC cameras, they came out to scalp. These two last met in the competition in January 1987, where I recall two matches beginning with Kenilworth Road and 0-0, a fortnight later it was Anfield and again 0-0, back to Kenilworth Road again, possibly astro-turf (QPR and Luton were renowned for their astro-turf in those days), and we were humbled 3-0, by Brian Stein, Mick Harford and Mike Newell. Newell is the current manager with Stein his assistant at Luton now.
Liverpool settled into the Kenilworth Road stadium, good link play with Djibril Cisse and Peter Crouch to find Steven Gerrard for our 1st, and then after that we seemed laid back, to be polite. Luton aimed to be first to the ball, good, firm accurate passing and we seemed somewhat lethargic. Our defence duo of Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia were at times chasing around as Luton's forwards kept them busy, and we were opened by Luton's own Steves', Howard and Robinson, the latter touching a great through ball to the former, Howard rounding Steve Carson to equalise.
But Liverpool couldn't keep shape to attack with any ability to pressure Luton, almost every ball was met by a Luton Town player and they made a number of head-ons too, despite the height of Hyypia. But height wasn't needed for their 2nd, Carlos Edwards fed Robinson from the right and Robinson touched the ball skillfully round Carragher first time, which teed him to strike past Carson. This was a big shock for me, as Liverpool looked painfully abject in form. This wasn't Ataturk but we needed another big comeback, 2-1 to the home side at half-time.
Come the 2nd half, Liverpool looked lively as Harry Kewell, who seems to be getting better in form, came down the left and passed for the advancing Gerrard, the ball was too hard and it rolled past, yet Gerrard came down in the area under Paul Underwood's touch and a penalty was given, which was a good decision. Cisse stepped up but Marlon Beresford guessed right and held onto the effort too. And to make it worse for Liverpool, a pass back to Hyypia was miscontrolled, leaving Rowan Vine one-on-one with the keeper and then judged to have been fouled by Carson in the box, which produced a booking for the keeper. Replays showed it was actually Vine who stamped on Carson's right foot, which incidentally happened outside the box and the Luton man certainly didn't step forward to admit to the error, making more dispute of the challenge that could have had Carson sent off. Carragher and John Arne Riise recovering probably persuaded the ref to produce the yellow anyway. Skipper Kevin Nicholls put it away, despite Carson going the right way. It seemed we would be out again at an early stage.
So, a penalty that was but not scored for Liverpool, and then one that wasn't and scored for Luton Town. But Liverpool are of a resolve now where they may not play well but they do not give up. They came back against Bolton and now they aimed to do so against Luton. Rafael Benitez changed Mohamed Sissoko for Florent Sinama-Pongolle, another Frenchman at the club clubs were seeking to obtain, and he made an excellent contribution almost immediately. Five minutes on and he raced onto a Gerrard through ball to fire past Beresford. Then seven minutes later Xabi Alonso picked onto a loose ball some 35-40 yards out in the Luton half and sent a looping effort high and completely over Beresford with acute accuracy. This is how I expected Liverpool to answer, how they should answer.
This was better from Liverpool, coming alive when the chips are down. We sensed we could get something, having equalised, and came forward with more lethal intent. Steve Finnan is looking better at right back and in coming forward. Five minutes after Alonso's goal, Finnan crossed from the right for FSP to jump and head his 2nd and Liverpool's 4th. And even then Luton were still coming at us. Benitez introduced new signing Jan Kromkamp, for Crouch, 10mins from time, leaving Cisse and FSP upfront. The Dutchman went on the right wing and got into stride, creating an attack to square for FSP, who dummied for Gerrard but his shot went wide. Finally, Cisse made way for Stephen Warnock, and was booked for taking too long. Warnock allowed Riise to float down the left, Kewell up with FSP.
But in the dying moments of injury time Luton attacked and Finnan cleared a dangerously loose ball in the box for a corner after it came off Riise's foot. Beresford came up but the ball was headed out. As it came back towards goal Gerrard headed it away, it went high and came down outside the box and was met by Riise with a high foot, from which a Luton Town player seemed to have been injured but the ref waved play to continue. Alonso picked the ball up in the middle of our half, Gerrard to his left eager to tear towards goal if passed through quick enough, Beresford remained up and challenged Alonso but was evaded, leaving the Luton goal open. Instead of finding Gerrard, the Spaniard aimed a curling left-foot effort towards goal from within his own half, and it bobbled and bobbled in the Luton half nearer the goal and went in. Gerrard exclaimed annoyance and then congratulations as the aim was achieved. Funny moment.
In summary, Liverpool started well and could have looked to add to Gerrard's goal but Luton Town have great courage and vigour and had settled well into a routine of battling for the ball, creating runs and opening up the Liverpool defence to be 3-1 ahead. This was another FA Cup classic for the archives, for me, and could have been another early exit at the hands of another Championship side. The Liverpool players showed excellent spirit to not let their heads down and to get more effort into their game, and Luton Town showed that they have spirit themselves to ascend into the Premiership.
"If we do not keep progressing, there will come a time when players move on. Premiership clubs and big Championship teams will be aware of our better players. It might be something that concerns me in the long run, but we have a great opportunity in the second half of this season, and we have to grasp it....and we are in a position where we can go and claim the big prize." - Mike Newell in December.
After this tie, clubs will be aware and Luton almost got that big prize. But they also showed they have a good claim to be there come May in contention for promotion.