Brendan Rodgers the embattled Liverpool manager was indebted to Adam Bogdan last night, the goalkeeper saving three penalties in a nervous shootout as the Premier League side scrapped past League Two Carlisle after being held over 120 minutes.
A bad injury to defender Dejan Lovren added to Rodgers’ problems though, the Croatian being carried off in extra time after having a splint applied to his right leg.
With supporters able to pay on the gate it was beginning to feel like yesteryear at Anfield until the football started and the grim reality of the present was laid bare. Carlisle were 65 places below Liverpool in the league standings and had the worst defensive record in the bottom professional division of the English pyramid.
Yet the statistics mattered not. This was excruciating in the most extreme for Liverpool and Rodgers, a team and a manager that could not find a way to beat a limited, though highly determined and organised opponent who were able to take the contest beyond 90 minutes.
Rodgers had said on Sunday after Liverpool failed to win against Norwich that his players were struggling to deal with the anxiety around Anfield, which for the majority of this evening remained silent. The strength of Rodgers’ starting XI either reflected he is taking the League Cup more seriously than Europe at this moment, or, he recognises the delicacy of his position and, in fact, is becoming desperate. It was, instead, Keith Curle, Carlisle’s manager, who decided to leave out key personnel, with the Football League’s top scorer Jabo Ibehre sacrificed for the tactical benefit of the team.
Roared on by 6,000 Cumbrians, Carlisle took encouragement at the slightest thing; like when Bastien Hery burst from midfield and thumped a shot into the Kop, or when Danny Grainger slung in a cross but Derek Asamoah could not quite reach it.
That Liverpool took the lead through Danny Ings’s header that did not dishearten the visitors. For a second time, Liverpool’s midfield underestimated the power of Hery’s running, forcing Dejan Lovren to split from the back three.
The break left Asamoah in space and he equalised, although Bogdan – making his debut – could have done more to save the shot that raced underneath him at the near post. Liverpool’s confidence quickly turned to slop. Carlisle were matching Liverpool tactically. Liverpool could not penetrate a defence that had conceded four goals in successive matches with Cambridge and Plymouth in the opening weeks of the season.
Having substituted Roberto Firmino before half time with the Brazilian holding his back, Rodgers’s hopes lay later with the introduction of Philippe Coutinho for Joe Allen. Coutinho, though, struggled to find room in a crowded midfield and Anfield’s frustration grew.
Ings’s waspish enthusiasm waned and rather than a Liverpool onslaught, Carlisle started to pose more questions in attack. When Alexander McQueen fashioned an opportunity by racing down the wing from his position at the back, the whole stadium held its breath as Ibehre, brought on for Asamoah, charged to meet it only for Emre Can to clear just as it seemed there might be a winner.
For much of the second half Rodgers sat in the dugout whispering to first team coach Gary McAllister. With £130m worth of signings on the pitch, it seemed impossible that Liverpool would not see this through. Yetthey have not won a game comfortably since Newcastle were defeated on this ground 2-0 in April.
And so it went to extra time and the pattern of play continued, with Carlisle happy to afford Liverpool possession and wait for chances through free-kicks and the occasional corner.
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