Exeter vs Liverpool match report: Anfield awaits after Brad Smith leveller deprives Exeter of famous victory

Exeter 2 Liverpool 2: The League Two side twice took the lead

Graham Clutton
Friday 08 January 2016 22:59
Brad Smith equalises for Liverpool
Brad Smith equalises for Liverpool

Liverpool’s blushes were saved by 21-year-old Brad Smith’s second-half equaliser at St James Park. The Australian struck with 17 minutes remaining to keep alive Liverpool’s hopes of avoiding an immediate exit from this season’s FA Cup.

Having rolled out the red carpet for their Premier League visitors, the locals had mixed feelings when the two line-ups were read out on the stadium PA system. Jürgen Klopp had chosen to mark his first game in charge in the once-coveted competition by naming a side that was scarcely recognisable to the travelling fans from Merseyside, let alone the home supporters inside a packed St James Park.

Instead of the instantly recognisable names of Nathaniel Clyne, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can, Mamadhou Sakho, Alberto Moreno and Lucas Leiva, the teamsheet read Cameron Brannagan, Jerome Sinclair, Connor Randall and debutants, Kevin Stewart, Tiago Ilori and Ryan Kent. Disrespectful or understandable? Maybe the competition’s top brass will decide on that in the coming days.

Once the disappointment had sunk in for those who had paid to see their heroes up against a club they have played only five times in their history, there was a feeling of genuine optimism.

The club that sits in 16th place in League Two and who have lost their past four league games, were beaten in the first round one last season, against Warrington Town of the Northern Premier League, but this time, the pressure was well and truly off.

One of Exeter manager Paul Tisdale’s primary concerns ahead of his side’s big night was what to wear in front of the television cameras. Tongue in cheek, of course, but the 42-year-old former Southampton midfielder, in a pork-pie hat, certainly looked the part as his team set off in search of the weekend’s first shock.

The hosts were certainly keen to leave an early mark. Tom Nichols provided immediate indication of his pace before Jordan Tillson was denied a shot on goal by Brannagan’s timely challenge. However, the opening goal was not long in coming. Jamie Reid exposed Jose Enrique along the Exeter right and when his cross flashed across the face, Nichols arrived to slide the ball into the far corner.

Liverpool’s response was immediate. After Brad Smith’s shot had been blocked on the Exeter line by Christian Ribeiro, Sinclair, who has been linked with a move away from Anfield, reacted quickly to a defensive miskick to register his first senior goal for the club.

Holmes celebrates scoring from a corner

It was the perfect tonic for Klopp and his young side. Thereafter, they played with increased confidence and taught Exeter an important lesson in the art of possession football. All that was missing was the level of finish that Sinclair had shown in the 12th minute.

It was a similar story at the other end with David Noble clearing the crossbar by 20 yards from a dozen yards and Ribeiro heading wide of Adam Bogdan’s far post after a measured cross from Lee Holmes. However, with first half time running out, Holmes whipped in a corner from the right and with Bogdan clutching at thin air, the ball sailed straight in to the far corner without anyone touching it.

Liverpool came within a whisker of equalising, for a second time, five minutes into the second half. Brad Smith picked out Christian Benteke with a delightful cross from the left, but the Belgian was denied by a wonderful save from Exeter goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik.

To their credit, the League Two side were in no mood to sit on their lead and play out time. Admittedly, their distribution was not what it had been in the first half, but they did their level best to keep Liverpool on their toes.

Still, the tide was beginning to turn and with Smith coming more and more into the game, the visitors looked the more likely to score.

That said, as hard as Liverpool pushed, they were lacking the necessary edge in the final third where Jordan Moore-Taylor and Troy Brown cancelled out the dual threat of Benteke and Sinclair.

Exeter built on that stability and after Ribeiro headed wide of the far post on the hour, Nichols was only inches over with a free-kick from 20 yards.

As the game moved into the final quarter, so Exeter picked up the pace with substitute Arron Davies shooting wide from 25 yards and Holmes causing a few Liverpool hearts to miss a beat with successive crosses from the left.

But just when it looked as though Liverpool might be tumbling out, the excellent Smith reacted in the box and levelled. It was just reward for the Australian who was Liverpool’s stand-out player on a difficult night.

Liverpool thought they might have had a penatly with seven minutes remaining, but their vociferous appeals for a foul on substitute Sheyi Ojo were waved away by referee Stuart Attwell. It was the right decision and made sure that Exeter will get another significant pay day, later this month.

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