A complacent display was almost punished by a Notts County comeback worthy of the club's rich history until the penny dropped for Liverpool in extra time. The shock was avoided but reverberations may be felt against Manchester United on Sunday.
Two goals ahead and cruising for an hour, a strong Liverpool team faltered badly under the first hint of pressure from a side without a win in League One this season. A towering header from Yoann Arquin, plus a cool, 84th-minute finish from the substitute Adam Coombes dragged the second-round tie into extra time, where 10-man Liverpool reaffirmed their superiority. Daniel Sturridge scored his second of the game moments after the referee Stuart Attwell had refused Notts County a penalty when Raheem Sterling nudged Edna Stevens and Jordan Henderson added a fine fourth to ease Anfield's palpitations. "The penalty decision was the turning point for me," said County manager Chris Kiwomya. "He caught his left buttock."
But progress came at a cost for Liverpool. Rodgers played down the consequences of enduring extra time with 10 men five days before United visit Anfield. "We have plenty of recovery time and that was the idea of playing so many senior players," he said. But injuries to Kolo Touré, Joe Allen and Aly Cissokho threaten disruption to Sunday's plans.
"Cissokho was distraught to come off with an ankle injury but shouldn't be out for too long," Rodgers said. "We need to check Joe's hamstring and Kolo overstretched his groin. He doesn't look so good. It was not a good night for us injury-wise." Martin Skrtel will be back from a knee problem in time for David Moyes's return to Merseyside and Liverpool may now step up their interest in the Paris Saint-German defender Mamadou Sakho. Rodgers' strong team selection illustrated the importance he has put on the cups following early exits in the Capital One and FA Cups last season and in the absence of European football this term.
The dividends appeared to arrive early when Sterling collected a pass from Glen Johnson, weaved past two weak defensive challenges on the edge of the area and found the bottom corner of Bartosz Bialkowski's goal. The Polish goalkeeper had been deep in prayer when the game kicked off but was forsaken by his defenders.
The post came to Bialkowski's aid when Daniel Agger met a Steven Gerrard free-kick with a glancing header. The keeper made a fine save from another Agger/Gerrard combination before the interval. He was powerless to prevent Liverpool doubling their advantage from a flowing, incisive move involving Allen and Gerrard, who threaded a slide-rule pass between central defender Manny Smith and right-back Mustapha Dumbuya to the feet of Sturridge. With a powerful left-foot drive beyond Bialkowski, the England striker had his third goal in three games. United must also take note of Sturridge's soaring confidence and increasing responsibility in the absence of the banned Luis Suárez.
The only blot on Liverpool's first-half performance was an injury to Cissokho six minutes into his first start for the club. Cissokho twisted his left ankle as he attempted to ride a tackle from Jamal Campbell-Ryce. Desperate to impress, the left-back ambled back on after lengthy treatment but immediately collapsed to the floor and was helped from the field in obvious despair.
Cissokho's exit marked the end of Agger's evening on the bench, resulting in Andre Wisdom switching from central defence to right-back and Johnson over to the left.
There was no disruption as Liverpool continued to dominate possession, with the movement of Sterling, Sturridge and Jordon Ibe offering a constant outlet to Gerrard and Alberto. It arguably became too comfortable for Rodgers' team, with complacency and slack defending proving a dangerous brew. "We were complacent in the second half," Sturridge said.
The night had been exhausting for the men from Meadow Lane yet it spoke volumes about their character and fitness how they improved as the contest wore on. The on-loan Celtic striker Callum McGregor began to cause problems down the right and 3,000 away fans were in ecstasy when Smith headed Mark Fotheringham's free-kick across the Liverpool area and Arquin rose above Wisdom to head home.
County's comeback was on when Arquin broke down the left and crossed for Coombes to convert with his first touch but, to Liverpool's credit, the scare and the disadvantage of 10 men concentrated the minds in extra time.
Sturridge scored his fourth of the season from Philippe Coutinho's pass and Henderson added polish to the scoreline with an impressive individual goal.
"It is a range of emotions to be honest," Rodgers said, "but to come through with 10 men showed tremendous character."
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