It takes something extraordinary at Anfield to upstage perhaps Liverpool's most beloved player, entering through a guard of honour to captain the side with his young son in his arms. But such is the wrath that Tom Hicks, Liverpool's co-owner, has incurred by revealing that he had a replacement lined up for Rafael Benitez that Jamie Carragher, marking his 500th appearance for the club by leading them to a 5-0 win over Luton in their FA Cup third-round replay, became a secondary consideration for the supporters here last night.
Benitez would not be drawn on how humiliated he has been by Hicks' comments about Jürgen Klinsmann – an "impressive man" as the American described the German on Liverpool's own website – but the size of the smile he wore revealed everything he felt about the crowd and his players, after a full-strength Liverpool delivered a ruthless five-goal riposte to Hicks. "The supporters here are amazing, always, so I was pleased and you don't need to say anything because they are fantastic," Benitez said. "I know you must ask about this but I prefer to enjoy today because we won 5-0."
Steven Gerrard, whose second-half hat-trick secured the win, said it was time to focus on the team, not the manager. "It's important that the headlines are about football and what's on the pitch," he said.
It was a night when everyone seemed to have investors in mind. Kevin Blackwell, who says he will quit on 9 February because Luton's administrators keep selling his players without telling him, learned second hand, just before kick-off, that TV presenter Nick Owen – as improbable a football club owner in his way as Hicks and George Gillett at Anfield – has made a financial loan which gives him exclusive rights to negotiate for Luton's purchase over the next six weeks. Blackwell did not say he would now reconsider, but in a statement implored that "whoever takes over" the club to look after it.
Hicks' statement had reverberated all day around Anfield where there is a feeling of bafflement at the highest level as to why Hicks had elected to go public on his California meeting with Klinsmann. The banners at the Anfield Road End expressed the fans' feelings: "Dubai SOS, Yanks Out" read one, a plea which might conceivably be answered if the Dubai Investment Company's daily conversations with Anfield yield results. "GH and RP [Gillett, Hicks and Rick Parry] Lies" claimed another, although Liverpool's chief executive is as frustrated as anyone by the current mess here.
Benitez just calmly leaned forward in the dug-out and raised a right hand to all corners of the ground as his name thundered around it. He could not afford any foul-ups on a night like this and fielded a full strength side – though he cited the six-day wait until Aston Villa's arrival as his reasons for doing so.
For 45 minutes, even this line-up – with Peter Crouch partnering Fernando Torres up front – struggled to convert. Torres fired over after Gerrard had teed him up, Crouch twice laid the ball back when something more direct would have done and Ryan Babel came closest when his curled effort from the left struck the base of the post. But the resistance was led by one Don Hutchison – revelling in a huge central defensive workload against a side for whom he played 50 times between 1990 and 1994 – who blocked and tackled Liverpool into a state of frustration and gave Luton their chant of the night for Benitez. "Sacked in the morning, you're getting sacked in the morning."
The game was up when Hutchison, for once, lacked the legs to stop Babel running past him on to Torres' perfectly weighted pass on the stroke of half-time and the Dutchman struck the ball beyond the despairing dive of Dean Brill into the far left-hand corner of the net.
Carragher's son, James, might have selected Torres' name for the jersey he wore last night ("He was given a choice of Gerrard, Carragher or Torres. No lad chooses a defender around here," his father said with a sigh) but this was Gerrard's show. First he headed home from close range after Crouch had flicked back a header from Jermaine Pennant's cross. Gerrard had supplied the corner from which Sami Hyypia headed a third (though Luton defender Matthew Spring helped it on its way), before scoring his second by racing on to a ball delivered to him in two touches by Torres and placing it past Brill.
The hat-trick, only Gerrard's second and Liverpool's first in the FA Cup since Stan Collymore's against Rochdale in 1996, was a viciously swerving 30-yard strike. The rendition of "Walk on" and yet more "Rafael" chants in the game's closing moments had particular resonance. Benitez, for whom Swansea or Havant and Waterlooville are next up in the Cup, might well conclude that humiliations like this week's can have a curious habit of strengthening your hand.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Itandje; Riise, Hyypia, Carragher, Arbeloa; Pennant, Gerrard (Lucas, 73), Alonso, Babel; Crouch (Kuyt, 65), Torres (Aurelio, 73). Substitutes not used: Martin, Kewell.
Luton Town (4-4-2): Brill; Keane, Hutchison, Goodall, Jackson; Bell (McVeigh, 73), Spring, Robinson (O'Leary, 69), Currie; Andrew (Furlong, 69), Talbot. Substitutes not used: Parkin, Emanuel.
Referee: P Walton (Northants)