In front of the club president, Sir Tom Finney, proud Preston lived up to their tradition and reputation last night, though they did not quite have the quality or luck to prevent Liverpool reaching the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Premier League leaders, victims of a giant-killing twice in the past four seasons, were dominant for an hour but fell away to cause their supporters an anxious last period until the outstanding Steven Gerrard broke away to set up substitute Fernando Torres for a second goal to add to Albert Riera's.
In between Preston should have had a penalty when Jamie Carragher held down the local hero Jon Parkin. The ball finished in Liverpool's net but Parkin had fouled Carragher in return, so Sean St Ledger's header was disallowed.
Seventh in the Championship under the former Evertonian Alan Irvine and with 10 wins in their 13 home games, North End had gone into the tie on the back of a good run, but were unable to build on a smooth start. In attack, they relied on the strength of beefy Parkin and Neil Mellor rather than the pace necessary to trouble Sami Hyypia . There was little scope for either of them and Mellor was withdrawn just after the hour. For the remaining period, however, Liverpool lost the authority that Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso had provided as a formidable midfield triangle, abetted by Riera on the left. Alonso had to be replaced at half-time, requiring seven stitches to his instep, and the home side were able to press forward albeit without finding the final touch.
"We didn't make it hard for ourselves, Preston did," said Sammy Lee, who was again doing the media round instead of Rafa Benitez. The manager, who sat in the second row of the dug-out, must have been equally impressed by Gerrard, whose night in the cells appeared to have had no adverse effect; just the opposite in fact. Lee said: "He's a top professional. Things have been written about him this week, but he's gone out there and produced a terrific performance."
Four years ago Benitez underestimated both the importance of the FA Cup and the quality of Football League opposition, sending out a reserve team to lose at Burnley. In last season's home defeat by Barnsley he took fewer chances but still did not send Gerrard on until the final 15 minutes, so it was no surprise that his captain started here in his attacking midfield role, from where he immediately imposed himself on the game.
The one negative for Liverpool, apart from Alonso's injury, was the performance of Robbie Keane. Dropped last week after scoring three times in two games, he was restored in place of Dirk Kuyt but wasted three chances in the first half alone, the worst of them from four yards following Gerrard's perfect cross. Fortunately,Riera's aim was true midway through the half when Preston were unable to deal with a left-wing corner. Gerrard thought briefly about a spectacular volley, then settled for nudging the ball on for Riera, who came inside on to his favoured left foot and shot high into the net.
By half-time the home crowd were grateful not to be further behind, though after Mascherano, Gerrard and Riera had all gone close, there was an uncomfortable moment to emphasise the fragile nature of the lead.
Parkin, rightly convinced that he had been held by Carragher, unwisely grabbed the defender's leg just as St Ledger headed in. St Ledger later failed to make sufficient contact at close range, and his team were hopelessly outnumbered as Gerrard unselfishly squared for Keane's replacement Torres to tap in. "We've come out with our pride intact," Irvine said. Pride matters to Preston.
Referee: M Atkinson
Man of the match: Gerrard
Match rating: 7/10
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