A very good quiz question will not, after all, have to be amended. It is “who is the only Liverpool No 9 to go through an entire season without scoring?” The answer is El Hadji Diouf. For most of this season it has looked as if it would also be Iago Aspas.
The name of the side he scored against will not resonate on Spain’s Atlantic coast, where Aspas grew up – Oldham are only being kept out of the League One relegation zone on goal difference. However, it was a goal that displayed considerable technique, as he leant back to hook home a low cross from Raheem Sterling. Moments later, in an almost identical move, he struck the post.
Oldham were far better than their league position suggests but, had he not scored in this fixture, you would have to ask what the point of him was. At 26, Aspas is too old to be filed under “young and promising” and the £7.7m Liverpool paid Celta Vigo for him will have to be justified fairly swiftly.
This was the third successive season these sides had met in the FA Cup and it was by a distance the least memorable game. Kenny Dalglish’s team won the first 5-1 on their way to the 2012 final while Oldham’s 3-2 victory at Boundary Park last year was not enough to prevent Paul Dickov’s dismissal as their manager.
Here, Liverpool, who will travel to either Bournemouth or Burton Albion in the fourth round, got through three captains and finished the match with 10 men after Daniel Agger, who had been given the armband by the departing Steven Gerrard, limped off with cramp in his calf. Brendan Rodgers had by then used all his substitutes.
Two of the changes were made during the interval after a dreadful first half in which the Liverpool manager replaced two others he had brought to Anfield in the summer – Luis Alberto and Victor Moses, who looks chronically short of confidence. Rodgers might have thought long and hard about replacing Aspas.
“We needed to do better, we needed to have more speed and intensity in our game,” said Rodgers. “I didn’t want to make the substitutions but the last thing you want is for the game to go to a replay. As a manager you learn you just can’t wait for it to happen, you have to create that momentum yourself.
“The ideal scenario was to let players who play week in and week out recover but we wanted to win the game. The others have to contribute; you can’t keep relying on the same 11 to 12 players.”
The evidence of this tie and much of this season is that unless Rodgers is allowed to spend in the transfer window Liverpool will be relying on 11 to 12 players in general and Luis Suarez in particular.
Their play did not merit a second goal but they got one when a wild shot from Sterling struck James Tarkowski and ricocheted horribly past Mark Oxley in the Oldham goal.
There was time for Rodgers to be given what he reflected was “the surreal experience” of seeing his son, Anton, come on to play against him.
While Oldham were a goal down, they continued to fight and, but for a fine one-handed save from Brad Jones, Michael Petrasso would have earned them an equaliser. It was then that Rodgers decided to drag on Suarez, which for Oldham was a victory of sorts. “We tried to go toe-to-toe with one of the best sides in the country,” said their manager, Lee Johnson. “We need that attitude for the rest of the season.”
The tie had begun with a tribute to Wayne Harrison, who, when he moved from Oldham to Liverpool in 1985, became the most expensive teenager in the country. But for an irreparable injury, he might have become one of the great footballers of his generation rather than ending up as a brewery driver who died from pancreatic disease at 46.
Harrison was never bitter about his fate and what was meant to be a minute’s silence became a sustained round of applause. It was a fitting tribute, if not a fitting match to remember him by.
Liverpool: (4-1-4-1) Jones 6; Kelly 6, Toure 6, Agger 6, Cissokho 6; Gerrard 6 (Suarez 77); Sterling 7, Henderson 6, Luis Alberto 4 (Lucas Leiva ht 5), Moses 4 (Coutinho ht 6); Aspas 6. Substitutes: Mignolet (g), Ilori, Skrtel, Brannagan. Booked; Sterling.
Oldham Athletic: (4-4-2) Oxley 7; Kusunga 6, Tarkowski 6, Grounds 6, Mellor 6 (Rodgers 84); Rooney 5 (Harkins 60 5), Wesolowski 6, Smith 6, Petrasso 6; Clarke-Harris 5 (Dayton 60 5), Philliskirk 6. Substitutes: Rachubka (g), Winchester, Lockwood, Brown. Booked: Smith.
Referee: Steve Attwell
Match rating: 6/10
Man of the match: Raheem Sterling (Liverpool)