A brace from Steven Gerrard spared Liverpool’s blushes in a pulsating FA Cup third round tie away at AFC Wimbledon on Monday evening.
The departing Liverpool skipper fired a goal in each half, whilst forward Adebayo Akinfenwa scored a deserved equaliser for the Dons in the first half.
The 2-1 win sets the Reds up with a fourth round tie at home to Championship Bolton, but the night belonged to one man only – and that was Liverpool’s iconic captain.
Gerrard was given a more attacking role by Brendan Rodgers, just days after the 34-year-old announced he would be departing the club when his contract expires at the end of the season.
And it came as no surprise when Gerrard put all the week’s talk behind him inside 12 minutes with the opening goal.
Gerrard sprayed a good pass out wide to Spanish full back Javier Manquillo and continued his run into the box. Manquillo delivered a superb first time cross, and Gerrard was on hand to bravely head the ball beyond Wimbledon goalkeeper James Shea.
That was as good as it got for the Reds in the opening 45 minutes however, with the League Two side dominant from the 20 minute mark.
Martin Skrtel had to clear a dangerous low cross into the box, and Simon Mignolet made a fine tip over from a shot from Sean Rigg from the resulting corner.
Liverpool seemed unable to defend basically in what was a disappointing first 45 minutes, with Matt Tubbs hooking the ball wide from a simple punt forward and flick on – despite replays showing he was a yard offside.
It came as no surprise when Akinfenwa made it 1-1 on 36 minutes, especially as the goal came from a set piece. Simon Mignolet fell hopelessly when challenging for the ball from a corner, and the 16-stone centre forward was the first to react to prod the ball into an empty net, after an original effort had come back off the crossbar.
It was no more than Neil Ardley’s side deserved, and set up a tense and crucial second 45 minutes for Brendan Rodgers.
It almost got off to the worst possible start, when Gerrard proved a hero at the other end. The Liverpool skipper was on hand to head off the line just two minutes after the restart, after Dons defender Adam Barrett rose unchallenged from yet another corner.
That was the closest Wimbledon came to taking the lead in a frantic opening 10 minutes following the restart, and gradually the Reds started to take the sting out of the game.
Philippe Coutinho began to have more of an influence, and the Brazilian struck wide when the cutback to Gerrard seemed the better option.
He was fouled on the edge of the box after a clever turn just minutes later, which gave Gerrard the opportunity to fire his ninth goal of the season with a perfect free kick.
Goalkeeper James Shea managed to get finger tips to the effort, but the strike from the skipper was the moment of quality the Reds were in desperate need of at a point where the tie was so finely balanced.
Gerrard almost turned provider for Rickie Lambert on 70 minutes, but the Reds number 9 produced a tame finish which was saved well by Shea at his near post.
Lazar Markovic spurned a clear opportunity on the counter attack, shooting softly at Shea having been set up by Coutinho.
The stage was set for Wimbledon to force a replay, and it almost came from yet another set piece. Substitute Mario Balotelli was weak in the challenge, and Martin Skrtel had to be on hand to block from Brigg as the Reds failed to defend another ball pumped into the box properly.
Simon Mignolet was called upon to deal with another set piece on 91 minutes, turning the ball behind with a tackle on the edge of his own six yard box.
The Reds broke from that resulting corner, and Shea denied Balotelli from close range before Gerrard saw a deserved hat trick denied with a clearance off the line from the follow up.
The final whistle that followed was met with a sigh of relief from Brendan Rodgers, who not for the first time had his departing captain to thank for bailing the Reds out of a sticky situation.
With the FA Cup Final scheduled for the 30th May – Gerrard’s 35th birthday – Reds fans will be hoping this is the beginning of a memorable cup run for the departing skipper, something he would richly deserve.