Luton Town 3 Liverpool 5: Gerrard lifts comeback kings past Luton's Milan mimicry

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During the heady period in which Luton were outplaying the European champions on Saturday night the Hatters faithful sang: "It's just like watching Brazil". At times in the first half, as Kevin Nicholls ran the midfield, Rowan Vine tormented Steve Finnan, Steve Robinson befuddled Jamie Carragher, and Kevin Foley cruised forward from right-back, it was. But ultimately it was more like watching Milan, as Liverpool reprised their Istanbul comeback.

"They wanted to keep playing," said Luton's manager, Mike Newell, of his players. Unfortunately, they did not have the legs to do so. In this match Premiership superiority was only obvious in the conditioning of Rafael Benitez's side. A season which stared in June, and has taken in a mid-winter jaunt to Japan, rolls on remorselessly with 14 wins and one defeat, to São Paolo in Yokohama, in Liverpool's last 18 matches.

"Before Japan people wondered if it would tire us," said Benitez. "Then they said 'Oh no, Christmas time'. We won three and drew one of our four games. We have continued going forward with energy. At the end we were creating chances. If you are in bad physical shape you cannot work as hard as we did in the second half.

"Now we have two weeks in which we can rest some players. We always try to be clever about it. We know so much about the players' [physiology] now. We can manage them."

As usual the metronome was Steven Gerrard. In the opening half, when Liverpool were dire, he was the exception. And when Benitez moved him to partner Xabi Alonso in central midfield, Liverpool were finally able to control the match.

This was Gerrard's 36th game of the season for club and country, and his 18th in 10 weeks. Benitez hinted they he may be among those rested, which will be a relief to the England manager, Sven Goran Eriksson.

The goalkeeper apart, Liverpool fielded a full-strength team here. In a reference to last season's embarrassment at Turf Moor, and this season's Carling Cup loss at Selhurst Park, Gerrard said: "We haven't had the best of records against Championship sides so it was important that we got through, no matter how we did it. But things were not right for 65, 70 minutes. They upset us and stopped us from playing."

Luton also played themselves. They had been the better side when Gerrard bent in a superb 20-yard-shot. Liverpool, Benitez admitted, then sat back. But a defence which conceded twice in the last 15 matches of the old year has conceded five in two games this year.

Bolton's brace last week was followed by sweet finishes from Steve Howard, who skipped round Scott Carson from Ahmet Brkovic's through ball to level, and Robinson, who neatly turned Carragher to put Luton ahead.

This barnstorming Cup-tie was just warming up. The penalties came next. Paul Underwood unluckily clipped Gerrard after Harry Kewell squared. Benitez demanded a red card but Gerrard would never have reached the cross. It was a foul, but not the denial of a goalscoring opportunity.

When Marlon Beresford clutched Djibril Cissé's kick to his chest an upset loomed, the more so when Howard robbed Sami Hyypia and Vine went down under Carson's challenge. Television replays showed he stood on the keeper's foot but Mark Clattenburg could not be expected to have seen that. Yet, having given the penalty, his decision not to dismiss Carson was inexplicable. Nicholls scored and Kenilworth Road exulted.

Now Liverpool showed their character. Gerrard released Florent Sinama-Pongolle to turn celebration to tension; Xabi Alonso brilliantly chipped Beresford from 30 yards; Sinama-Pongolle headed in Finnan's cross. It was already over when, with Beresford upfield for an injury-time corner, Alonso wellied in from nearly 70 yards.

"It was a great Cup tie, but we're not happy with how we played," said Gerrard. An enthralled audience, in the flesh and on television, begged to differ.

Goals: Gerrard (16) 0-1; Howard (31) 1-1; Robinson (43) 2-1; Nicholls, pen (53) 3-1; Sinama-Pongolle (62) 3-2; Alonso (69) 3-3; Sinama-Pongolle (74) 3-4; Alonso (90) 3-5.

Luton Town (4-4-2): Beresford; Foley, Coyne, Heikkinen (Barnett, 74), Underwood; Edwards (Feeney, 81), Nicholls, Robinson, Brkovic (Showunmi, 81); Howard, Vine. Substitutes not used: Morgan, Brill (gk).

Liverpool (4-4-2): Carson; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Gerrard, Sissoko (Sinama-Pongolle, 57), Alonso, Kewell; Crouch (Kromkamp, 79), Cissé (Warnock 89). Substitutes not used: Hamann, Reina (gk)

Referee: M Clattenburg (Durham).

Booked: Luton Underwood; Liverpool Sissoko, Carson, Cissé.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 10,170.