That was terrible. Terrible.
Might as well get all the positives out of the way early. Liverpool actually won, despite all the complaining to come, advancing to the next round. Daniel Sturridge scored within seven minutes on his Liverpool debut. That's about it.
If not for a Suarez goal that shouldn't have counted, Liverpool would be headed back to Anfield for a replay. If not for Jamie Carragher's defending, Liverpool would be headed back to Anfield for a replay, if not losing outright today.
Sturridge's early strike should have marked the end of the match as a contest. Liverpool were all over Mansfield for the first 25 minutes, notching in the seventh when Shelvey's excellent throughball sent the new signing racing in behind Geohaghon, placing his shot under Marriott into the far corner. Only Marriott's keeping kept Liverpool from extending its advantage during the early flurry, denying Sturridge twice more, as well as Allen's effort from the top of the box, while Mansfield defenders made crucial blocks on both Wisdom and Downing.
But, as we've seen time and time again, the opposition grew in stature as Liverpool failed to take its chances. Matt Green's blistering shot from distance in the 32nd, well saved by Jones, was a teaser of more to come in the second half. Still, Liverpool rarely looked troubled, and nearly added the second twice more before halftime, with another Sturridge shot saved then Coates' volley from the subsequent corner hammered wide.
It was as if the pitch seesawed during the interval. Mansfield were all over Liverpool from the restart. After no corners in the first half, they had four in the first ten minutes of the second. Liverpool couldn't get the ball out of their own end, Mansfield were bludgeoning Liverpool with crosses and long throws. Only Allen's block on the line prevented an equalizer in the 54th minute, on Mansfield's fourth corner, as Geohaghon headed down and Allen was perfectly placed to stop Green's back heel after it beat Brad Jones.
With Sturridge lacking match fitness, Suarez replaced him in the 55th, immediately after that Mansfield chance, with Henderson also on for the wholly ineffective Suso. It made an immediate impact: the Uruguayan toe-poked just wide with his first touch, set up by Wisdom, then scored within four minutes. It's fair to say the goal shouldn't have stood. Liverpool countered after another Geohaghon long throw, with Shelvey finding Suarez with a long ball over the top. Suarez laid off for Downing, running onto the return pass through the box. Marriott saved his first effort, but pushed the ball straight back to Suarez, off his hand, then tapped into the net. No, Suarez didn't intentionally handle it. Yes, he handled it. If it's anyone but Suarez, it's regretted – poor, unlucky Mansfield – but mostly ignored. But it's Suarez, and he's the devil's favorite footballer. Smash cut to a mob with pitchforks and torches.
I'd also like to point out that the linesman who failed to spot the handball was the same linesman who ruled Suarez's "winner" at Everton offside. But it's Suarez's fault, not the officials, naturally.
You'd think that 2-0 would ice the game. Mansfield heads would drop, Liverpool would easily smother the match into submission. You'd be wrong. Mansfield slowly reasserted control, pulled one back with 10 minutes to play, and then spent the final ten minutes trying to kill me.
As we're highlighting Liverpool's luck with referees, I'll churlishly mention that Mansfield's equalizer came from a free kick that wasn't a foul. But a soft push was given, Liverpool only half-cleared the set play, and when the ball came back in, Thompson won the knockdown, Green was first to the loose ball, and his shot deflected in off both the flat-footed Coates and Jones. From there, Mansfield pushed and pushed and pushed and I'm still not sure how Liverpool held on. Other than another excellent Jones save on another Green shot from distance, Liverpool seemed to be trying to hand Mansfield an equalizer, unable to keep possession, hoofing clear then bunkering down for the inevitable onslaught to resume. It was the antithesis of what Rodgers' sides supposedly do.
Liverpool, especially the midfield, struggled to deal with Mansfield's rutted pitch, struggled to deal with the non-league version of Stoke's tactics. Mansfield packed the middle of the park, shifting to 4-5-1 after routinely playing either 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, ensuring that Lucas and Allen would have little time on the ball. Both players had awful matches; it was probably the worst a Liverpool midfield containing Lucas had played since Hodgson's reign. Liverpool's defense, other than Jones' numerous saves, was no great shakes either; Carragher had typical Carragher problems, almost all centering on his lack of pace, but he also often made amends for Coates' or fullbacks' errors. Sturridge looked handy, a goal-scorer's finish, good pressing, and clever off the ball movement, linking up well with Shelvey in the first 25 minutes, but clearly started to tire by halftime.
Cup ties are one-off matches, as Bradford's victory over a nearly-full strength Arsenal in the league cup (among countless other examples) can attest. So, even though it was a dire performance against non-league opposition, it's over and done with, and Liverpool survive. That's all we can take from today. That Suarez will be the talking point is also some comfort; better talking about that than how dismal Liverpool were.
Still, no matter the understrength lineup, the pitch, the referee, it's a bit of a comedown from the comprehensive victories in the last two matches, especially as it's another worrying example of Liverpool's inability to deal with physical opponents. And there's an awful lot which Liverpool simply cannot replicate in its next match next week. That lot will certainly punish Liverpool for similar failings.