Nardiello 80' (pen)
So much for an under-strength line-up. No line-up with Luis Suarez is under-strength.
A team featuring the Uruguayan, as well as Meireles, Adam, Maxi, and Henderson, is expected to canter over Exeter. Anything less would be a disappointment and most likely cause for concern, as least as far as the media's concerned. Well, we weren't disappointed, but weren't overawed either. Except, of course, by Suarez.
Meireles' 20th-minute injury is a bigger concern than anything that occurred on the pitch – clutching his shoulder, replaced by Carroll as Liverpool reverted to last season's 4-2-2-2. But the inevitable opener came almost immediately after the substitution: Maxi found Henderson in wide open on the right touchline, Exeter keeper Krysiak could only palm the floated cross to Suarez under pressure from Carroll, and the striker blasted in his third in three games.
From there, Liverpool were on cruise control, unavoidable winners. Yes, there's always the possibility of a freak goal, especially on a gopher patch League One ground with Liverpool piling men forward, but Exeter truly never looked a threat. Liverpool's inability to get the second before half-time was mostly of their own making, increasingly frustrated by the home side's ten-man rearguard. Adam was the model of this irritation, routinely attempting the fantastic and unlikely single-handedly instead of patiently working to break down an obstinate opposition. Still, Liverpool would have been two up had Maxi converted Suarez's wicked low cross or had Adam or Suarez been able to get their dangerous attempts on target.
It didn't take long for the main protagonist to finish matters after the restart. Suarez turned creator on both – first centering to Maxi after his initial attempt for Carroll was blocked, then nutmegging an unfortunate defender before racing on to set up Carroll's unstoppable rocket. The third goal marked the end of his necessary contributions, replaced by Downing, with Liverpool switching to a 4-3-3 with Maxi and Downing as inverted wingers supported by Henderson, Adam, and Spearing.
The former Villa winger nearly scored his first for the club ten minutes later, well-saved by Krysiak at his near post. But from then on, Liverpool looked ready to call it a day, playing at the pace of some of the preseason matches. The early preseason matches. And they paid for it in the 80th minute when Skrtel brought down Nardiello on the break with Flanagan and all three midfielders caught upfield. One defensive mistake, one goal, thankfully all too late. Harsh, as otherwise all four defenders did well, but always possible with so many men pushing forward in hopes of adding their names to the score sheet and the game all but over. And ultimately irrelevant.
It's hard to take much away from Carling Cup matches no matter the personnel involved. On one hand, it's reassuring to see Dalglish's commitment to the competition. New players Henderson and Adam (and Carroll) were well served by the additional match experience, as were youngsters like Wilson, Robinson, and Flanagan – who were three of Liverpool's best players on the day. On the other, injuries like that to Meireles' can happen and it was something of a no-win situation. If Liverpool wins, great, it's expected. And anything less leads to an inquest complete with torches and pitchforks.
Less conclusively good or bad was Suarez's utter brilliance. He was absolutely crucial to everything good Liverpool did. Unfortunately, he was absolutely crucial to Liverpool doing good. With three goals and two assists in three games, as well as his involvement in the Arsenal own goal, he's had a hand in every strike notched. The season's barely started, and three matches (let alone one) aren't a trend, but Liverpool's spent far too much money to be a one-man team.
Still, it's churlish complaining about a comprehensive win with a few moments of brilliance, especially after last season's Carling Cup run. Let's hope the strong line-up pays off when Liverpool host Bolton in three days.