AFC Wimbledon 1 Liverpool 2

After all the hype surrounding the third round FA Cup pairing of the ‘new’ Wimbledon with the team they sensationally defeated in the 1988 final, it was the ex-England and soon to be ex-Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard who turned in a man of the match performance to ensure his side retained their interest in this season’s competition. They had to survive plenty of sticky moments along the way last night though against the Division 2 side, in the small but noisy Cherry Red Records Stadium, before they secured a 2-1 victory.

AFC Wimbledon have only been in existence twelve years, being founded by Wimbledon FC supporters in reaction to the existing club relocating to Milton Keynes. Effectively they split from what is now MK Dons (the name was adopted in 2004) to form the new club, which began life in the ninth tier of English Football and have enjoyed many successful promotions since to reach their current level.

Their connection to the old ‘Crazy Gang’ that energised their previous incarnation was evident yesterday in the form of the current manager, Neil Ardley, with other stars of the past such as the Cup Final scorer, Lawrie Sanchez and goalkeeping hero, Dave Beasant in attendance.

On a decent playing surface that was only slightly sticky in places, but enough to undo several of the . injudicious attempted flicks and back heels that Liverpool's more creative midfield attempted throughout the match, Liverpool took the lead inside the first fifteen minutes. Gerrard sprayed the ball wide to the galloping Javier Manquillo down the right, continued his run into the box and met the cross from the Spaniard with a brave header to find the corner of the net.

Far from daunting the home side, they seemed to grow in belief as the half progressed, pressuring the Reds with a series of crosses and corners. As the jitters in the Liverpool defence that have been all too frequent this season and last seemed to take hold once again, a Wimbledon corner was missed by Simon Mignolet, the ball came back off the crossbar and “The Beast” that is the sixteen stone Adebayo Akinfenwa bundled the ball home from almost on the goal line. Mignolet had saved brilliantly moments before the equaliser, but his weakness against crosses was highlighted again. There was still time before the interval for Akinfenwa to display his silky skills with a soft shoe shuffle on the half-way line to beat two players. One apiece into the break and the crowd sensed that the upset they had come hoping to see was still a distinct possibility.

Into the second-half and the shaky Premier League team’s defence were spared their blushes by Gerrard’s clever positioning on the post to head clear, with Mignolet floundering again from an Adam Barrett header. As the game progressed, either team seemed capable of claiming a winner as both had chances. There was one surreal moment just before the hour mark, when the Wimbledon defender Barry Fuller lost the flight of the ball in the floodlights and had his back to the ball as it clearly struck him on the arm in the area. Much to the annoyance of Gerrard, the officials decided to give the benefit of the doubt to the Wombles’ player.

Just past the hour mark and a cynical foul on Philippe Countinho just left of centre, beckoned Gerrard forward to attempt one of his trademark up and over free-kicks. He did not disappoint and curled a cute right-foot curler into the net, despite the keeper, James Shea getting a slight touch on the ball as it went in.

There was no tame surrender from the home side as they continued to push forwards, seeking another equaliser. With centre-half Martin Skrtel lying prone on the deck midway into the Liverpool half, Dannie Bulman fired narrowly over the bar for them. They were beginning to visibly tire and so the chances on the break continued to come for Brendan Rodgers’ men as well, but they were unable to take advantage, seemingly attempting to walk the ball into the net but never completely convinced that they were fully in control of the outcome of the game.

Another Wimbledon goalscoring opportunity was always likely to arise and so it proved in injury time, as Mignolet slid in to kick clear when Akinfenwa almost reached another Barrett flick on.

Shea excelled at the death to preserve the one goal deficit, when he denied the substitute Mario (“Why always me?”) Balotelli from point-blank range, with Gerrard’s follow up for the hat-trick being well blocked as well. Gerrard would have no doubt liked the novelty pink matchball used in the FA Cup ties for his personal collection at home, but that would have to wait for another day, as his side held on.

For Liverpool it was worrying that the man leaving at the end of the season was still the best player on show for them by some margin and the one they relied on to get them through to the next round. The rumours about Gerrard's future and background to why he's leaving at the end of the season continue to rumble on. There was plenty of pressure on him at the end of last season as the side pushed for the title to the end and it is maybe slightly reminiscent of Kenny Dalglish’s last days at the club after the Hillsborough disaster when he decided to walk away. Dalglish returned and the fans will no doubt hope for similar from Gerrard one day in some shape or form.

Gerrard seems like he has unfinished business with the FA Cup and an interesting coincidence is the fact that his 35th birthday coincides with the day of the final on 30th May, 2015. Before that though, they have a date with Bolton Wanderers at home in a repeat of the third round tie in 1993, when the Championship side prevailed. Gerrard and co will hope for better fortune this time around.

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