Luton Town in administration; Liverpool seized by desperation. Fabio Capello came to watch English football's most successful club yesterday but the England manager will have left admiring the tenacity of a League One side facing financial oblivion and playing as if their livelihoods depended upon it.
At blighted Luton, where the players were last paid in full in October and the future is in doubt, livelihoods may well depend on the revenue from a lucrative replay at Anfield on 15 January. If one game came to embody the spirit of the FA Cup third round, then it was this one: Kevin Blackwell has paid his players' mortgages out of his own pocket of late and yesterday was a repayment in kind for the Luton manager.
Even when Peter Crouch's goal with less than 20 minutes left appeared to have won the game, Luton came back led by the game's outstanding player, the striker Drew Talbot whose cross was turned in by John Arne Riise. Today at 5pm is the deadline for potential buyers to save Luton and, while there are already believed to be three interested parties, this performance was the reaction of a club that refuses to die.
While Luton's financial administrators decided what to do with an estimated 500,000 share of the Anfield gate, Benitez will simply be relieved that he does not have to explain to American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jnr why their club are out the FA Cup.
The Liverpool manager was uncharacteristically snappy for a man so mellow while Blackwell, who should be in the pits of despair, could reflect joyfully on an extraordinary afternoon at the ramshackle Kenilworth Road. In fact the Luton manager admitted that while the replay will help his club's financial ills he was disappointed not to have won and you could see his point.
Blackwell's priority is that Luton's future is resolved today so that his players can be paid and this impressive side, who have lost just once in the last 13 games, can be kept together. "I think it's a club worth saving, people just have to get off their backsides and do it," he said. "My players showed terrific heart and fitness and I'm very proud of them. I hope that Mr Capello understands that a high level of football goes much, much deeper in this country. Look at the technical ability of our lads on a pitch that cut up. My team played in a way that made Liverpool look poor."
Blackwell has already fended off one 175,000 bid from Nottingham Forest for his midfielder David Edwards a player he rates at 500,000 and he knows there will be no mercy from the rest of the football fraternity. If there was one set of players who definitely earned their wages yesterday however, it was the Luton team although there are no guarantees they will actually be paid them.
With no Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres, Benitez's best performers were Jamie Carragher and Crouch with the odd cameo from Ryan Babel. Liverpool only really began to carve out some proper chances in the second half, Riise's low drive clipped off Chris Perry but goalkeeper Dean Brill was still astute enough to make a one-handed save.
For Luton the undoubted star of the show was Talbot a 21-year-old signed from Sheffield Wednesday for 250,000 one year ago. Talbot's moment came on 54 minutes, a sweet chip on to his head from Darren Currie and the goal invitingly open with the striker just six yards out. His finish straight over the bar - was much more recognisably League One than the rest of his performance. Currie was equally culpable when he was put clean through in the first five minutes of the game and hit his shot straight at Liverpool's goalkeeper Charles Itandje.
Crouch gave Liverpool the lead after the organisation of Luton's defence broke for a second. Chris Coyne allowed himself to be dispossessed on the halfway line and Yossi Benayoun and Andrei Voronin, on as a substitute, broke on goal. It was the Ukrainian who hit the shot, saved by Brill but none of the home side had noticed Crouch, up with the attack, who poked in the loose ball.
Five minutes later came the equaliser. Talbot twisted free on the left and struck a cross that Riise, under pressure from Edwards, turned in via his leg and his arm. This unloved old stadium was rocking with the scent of a Cup shock and Luton thoroughly deserved to win this game. As their manager admitted, it is the harsh reality of modern football and its unforgiving finances that they are much better off with a trip to Anfield.
Goals: Crouch (73) 1-0; Riise og (76) 1-1.
Luton Town (4-4-2): Brill; Keane, Coyne, Perry, Goodall; Bell, Spring, Edwards, Currie; Andrew, Talbot. Substitutes not used: Hutchinson, Jackson, Robinson, O'Leary, Furlong.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Itandje; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Benayoun (El Zhar, 86), Alonso (Mascherano, 73), Leiva, Babel (Voronin, 70); Kuyt, Crouch. Substitutes not used: Martin (gk), Hobbs.
Referee: H Webb (Yorkshire).
Booked: Liverpool Riise, Hyypia.
Man of the match: Talbot.
Call from Capello?
Jamie Carragher (Liverpool)
If only Fabio Capello could persuade Carragher out of retirement the centre-half was outstanding.