Sturridge 29' 105+4'
Well that wasn't supposed to happen.
Sure, it started like it was supposed to. Sterling scored within four minutes: winning possession, dancing between defenders, rocketing a shot that Bialkowski couldn't keep out. Liverpool kept up the pressure, coming close a few times before adding a gorgeous second: neatly passed through the midfield triangle, Luis Alberto to Allen to Gerrard, before the captain's perfect throughball that Sturridge finished with aplomb. Two-nil in less than 30 minutes. Surely that's that. Kill the game, ease into Sunday.
Not quite. Three injuries – to Cissokho, Allen, and Toure – three shots off the woodwork, sloppily conceding a first on a set play (surprise!) then increasingly pushed back until conceding a second on a quick counter-attack (surprise!) with just seven minutes left to play.
Like the rest of us, Liverpool thought the match was won at halftime. That's the most unforgivable sin today. Although there were a few more sins along the way.
Liverpool never got complacent against Stoke or Villa. Sure, those were Premiership opponents, and Liverpool never had more than a 1-0 lead, but Liverpool fought tooth and nail for 90 minutes to ensure it stayed a 1-0 lead, at worst, even if Mignolet had to rescue terrifying moments in each match.
Today, against lower league opponents who'd won just one of five matches this season, Liverpool figured a two-goal lead was enough, most likely already thinking about United on Sunday. It goes without saying that's dangerous against any opponent.
Notts County threatened on a couple of corners not long before scoring their opener, a sign of things soon to come, after increasing pressure on Liverpool from the moment the match restarted. With Agger already on thanks to Cissokho's early ankle injury, it's not as if Liverpool's defense was radically different than usual. But set pieces remain a concern, a concern that doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon. And on a 62nd-minute deep free kick, Smith was left wide open at the top of the box, heading on for Arquin, who'd drifted behind both Wisdom and Toure for a point-blank header. Sigh. To compound matters, Allen's hamstring injury came almost immediately after County's goal, requiring further changes.
Liverpool proceeded to waste chances for the needed third: Toure soon provided the third woodwork strike, the second time he's hit the goal frame this season, then Sturridge headed inches wide. Like against Stoke, like against Villa, with Liverpool hanging onto a one-goal lead in the final ten minutes, Liverpool were put under more pressure than they'd seen in the previous 80. Unlike against Stoke and Villa, Liverpool couldn't prevent an equalizer, as substitute Coombes scored with his first touch after County broke when Liverpool (read: Glen Johnson) lost possession in the opposition half, hammering in Arquin's cross with Liverpool's retreating defense in total disarray.
Conceding on a set play? Check. Conceding on a counter-attack? Check. Was at least one of them a header when a Liverpool player lost an aerial duel? Yep. Super. It's Liverpool Calamity Bingo.
Cue extra time. Cue all the horrific memories of Northampton which I spent so much time repressing with therapy and alcohol.
Except not this time. When Kolo Toure went down with a groin injury – most likely out for the longest of any of the three players who had to go off today – all hope appeared lost, with Liverpool needing to play the final 20 minutes with ten men. At best, Liverpool hold on for penalties, for Mignolet to save the day yet again. To the surprise of all of us pessimists, Mignolet wasn't even needed for those final 20 minutes, as Liverpool ruthlessly carved open Notts County twice in five minutes with quick, direct attacks.
First, Johnson blocked a speculative shot, with Gerrard picking up possession and feeding Coutinho, who raced 40 yards before playing a long throughball to Sturridge, running at Smith from the left channel before firing a shot at goal which Bialkowski really should have parried away. Instead, it crept under the keeper's hand, trickling over the line. On the other side of extra time halftime, Liverpool quickly restarted a free kick on the halfway line, Agger played a long, low pass for Sturridge, who immediately found the on-rushing Henderson, impressively nutmegging Liddle before shooting past Bialkowski from the top of the box. Both moves took less than 15 seconds from Liverpool's half to the ball in the back of the net.
Relief. Sweet, sweet relief.
Yes, it should have been a lot easier than Liverpool made it. The second half complacency is Rodgers' problem. The lack of depth is both Rodgers and FSG's problem. But as for lineup decisions, despite the three injuries, Rodgers was damned if he did and damned if he didn't, as in pretty much any cup match. Toure had to start because of injuries to Skrtel, Coates, and Kelly. Allen and Cissokho needed to start for match fitness. Cissokho's injury was a fluke, and I'd be surprised if he missed much time, but the muscle injuries for Allen and Toure are worrying, especially since neither is a position of strength for Liverpool.
In regards to individual performances, some impressed, some disappointed, which is often the case when you chop and change the lineup in the cups. Both Wisdom and Ibe played poorly, with the defender arguably at fault – at least jointly – for both goals. Which isn't entirely unexpected when you're playing kids in the League Cup. This is, after all, where they learn. Johnson also underwhelmed, especially on Notts County's second goal, in both attack and defense, which was far more surprising and annoying given both his experience and the fact that he's usually more defensively solid when deployed on the left.
On the other hand, Sturridge, Sterling, and Gerrard all played well, as did Henderson off the bench (especially in scoring the crucial fourth), Luis Alberto had some promising touches, mostly when dropping deep to knit play, but there are obviously more concerns than positives after that. Concerns about set plays, concerns about focus, concerns about squad depth after those three injuries. But at the very least, Liverpool again demonstrated the resiliency we've gloated over in the two Premiership wins, scoring two in extra time to advance to the next round despite being reduced to 10 men. That has to count for something.
Yes, everything's still the worst (© Liverpool Offside), especially with United to come, but really, it could be even more the worst.