Liverpool 2 Cardiff City 1: Gerrard finds rapid response to spoil Fowler's night

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The Independent Football

Robbie Fowler would have had a nice moment late last night, reminding his old mate Jamie Carragher of the way he turned him inside the box, eight minutes from time, and forced a half chance which might have changed the story.

But that memory, along with a touchline handshake and an "all the best" from Rafael Benitez – was all he left his beloved Liverpool with. Benitez rested most of the team that played Arsenal on Sunday, but by deploying his most precious midfield commodity, Steven Gerrard, he made this tie safe.

Fowler's name rang out before kick-off and he almost created the headlines this game was made for when, three minutes into the tie, he danced around on the edge of the box and was upended by Alvaro Arbeloa. His subsequent free-kick was touched around the corner by Charles Itandje, on his second start, but it was a telling reminder of the tribute paid by Carragher when he said, earlier this week that he owed his accomplishments to fiendish training sessions trying to pin Fowler down at Melwood.

For times in the 45 minutes that followed, Anfield could have been forgiven for dreaming of the days when God was doing his stuff because Liverpool's strike force was rather less than celestial. Ryan Babel – offered the central role he so craves, in a partnership with Peter Crouch tested only once previously – spurned some gilt-edged chances. A header over the bar in two yards of space after a run and cross by Gerrard – as motivated by a regulation Carling Cup tie as the Champions League – was particularly heinous.

Then, up stepped a player as little known to Anfield as Fowler is synonymous with the place. The French-born Moroccan international midfielder Nabil El Zhar seemed one of Benitez's more curious pieces of business after he was snapped up from St Etienne last year. He had only appeared once as a substitute and was described to Liverpool fans on local radio before this game as a player whose reserve team performances suggested he was not up to much. The way he latched on to Gerrard's ball and lashed a 25 yard shot into the net, on 48 minutes, laid a few of those the suspicions to rest.

Some of the defensive frailties which so bedevilled Liverpool in Turkey a week ago gave Cardiff an equaliser, when Paul Parry's cross was nodded home by Darren Purse just after the hour. It was also a tense last half hour against a Cardiff team whose outlay on the £15,000-a-week Fowler and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has evidently left manager David Jones feeling tense.

"[We've been] playing one of the best teams in Europe out there," Jones said after the game. "Give them some credit instead of having a pop at them." A touch generous on Liverpool perhaps, but you got the point.

Benitez finally had some converted chances to talk about, though another impressive contribution on the left flank by Yossi Benayoun – fast developing a reputation as a formidable substitute for his manager – should be equally satisfying. It was the Israeli who supplied the pass for Gerrard to run through and slot under Cardiff keeper Michael Oakes on 66 minutes and seal the tie.

Jones is so rattled right now that he inexplicably bade the assembled press corps "a shit journey home." Perhaps that's the effect when Gerrard, who would have been on the bench had Mohamed Sissoko's sickness not prevailed, ends up running the opposition midfield. Jones, whose son is a Liverpool academy player, admitted no one could have contended with him. "He's the one who's killed us and he's the one who I'll have to get my son to do over tomorrow," he concluded.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Itandje; Arbeloa, Hobbs, Carragher, Aurelio; El Zhar (Kewell 71), Lucas, Gerrard, Leto (Benayoun 63); Crouch, Babel. Substitutes not used: Martin, Arne Riise, Mascherano.

Cardiff (4-4-2): Oakes, McNaughton, Purse, Johnson, Capaldi, Ledley, Rae, McPhail, Parry, Fowler, Floyd Hasselbaink (Thompson 75). Substitutes not used: Magennis, Loovens, Gunter, Whittingham.

Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).