Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt scored either side of half time as Liverpool secured a 2-1 victory over Brighton & Hove Albion in the League Cup third round at the Amex Stadium.
There was also more good news for the Reds as club captain Steven Gerrard made his long awaited comeback from injury after six months on the sidelines.
Albion substitute Ashley Barnes converted a late penalty for the home side, who also saw winger and lifelong Liverpool supporter Craig Noone rattle the bar during a sustained spell of second half pressure.
Both sides fielded a mixture of youth and experience, with Pool boss Kenny Dalglish making seven changes from Sunday’s 4-0 defeat to Tottenham. Seagulls chief Gus Poyet meanwhile made five changes of his own, with an eye on the Championship fixture against Leeds United in just 48 hours time.
Bellamy made the breakthrough after just seven minutes, as the Premier League side quickly stamped their authority on affairs. The Welshman, making his first start since re-joining the club last month, fired an angled drive past the grasp of Casper Ankergren. Albion’s Danish goalkeeper managed to get fingertips to the strike, but couldn’t prevent it giving the away side the lead.
With an early advantage clearly dampening the atmosphere amongst the excitable home crowd, Liverpool could have easily put themselves out of reach by half time. Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez twice came within inches of extending the advantage, each time giving Ankergren no hope.
Bellamy came even closer to doubling his and Liverpool’s lead, with a crunching 30 yard drive that thundered against the underside of the crossbar and away to safety.
The Championship high-flyers offered little in front of goal until just before the interval – Pepe Reina spilled a Noone effort, before Martin Kelly scrambled the loose ball from the line with Craig Mackail-Smith lurking.
The Seagulls came out after the break with much more purpose as they looked to avenge their defecit. Following Noone’s drive that tested the frame of the goal, the introduction of glamour signing Vicente Rodriguez added further spice to a tie that was rapidly coming to the boil.
The equaliser still remained elusive however, forcing Poyet into further attacking changes. Livewire winger Kazenga LuaLua and top scorer Barnes entered the fray in place of Matt Sparrow and Alan Navarro – who was also playing against the team he supports, having grown up a matter of yards from the Reds Anfield home.
Such an attacking formation was to prove costly though, as Dalglish’s side doubled their advantage, and effectivly killed the tie. A classic counter attack left Kuyt in acres of space after bring put through by Maxi Rodriguez, and he made no mistake as he tucked the ball home via the inside of the post.
Albion carried on to their credit, and secured the consolation their second half efforts merited on the stroke of full time. Vicente used all of his tricks that earned him 38 caps for Spain during the early part of the 21st century, and was eventually stopped by the trailing leg of Jamie Carragher. Referee Michael Oliver didn’t hesitate to point to the spot, and Barnes kept his cool to score his sixth goal of the season.
Despite a frantic finale, it wasn’t to be for Albion, and it will be Dalglish’s men that go through to Saturday’s fourth round draw, as they seek to win their eighth League Cup.
At the full time whistle, Noone rushed to claim the shirt of the returning Gerrard, whose roof he famously tiled before signing professional forms with Plymouth in 2008.
Commenting on Gerrard’s return to action, Dalglish said, “It was fantastic for everyone connected to the club to see Steven back, but we’re more pleased for Steven than anything else.
“He’s worked really hard and had a few disappointments along the way, so to get 20 minutes or so will give him a real lift.
“We said we were happy with the business we had done in the summer and having Steven back is like getting a new signing.”
Poyet meanwhile was philosophical following his sides defeat, saying, “Playing attractive football is us and that’s what I was trying to convince the players before the game. That was not so clear during the first half but I’m very proud of the players form in the second half.
“I have a good feeling even though we lost, which means a lot because I don’t like losing.”
Brighton: Ankergren, Greer, Navarro (Barnes 78), Sparrow (LuaLua 78), Noone, Mackail-Smith, Calderon, Vincelot, Bridcutt, Cook, Buckley (Vicente 60). Subs not used: Brezovan, Dunk, Taricco, Kasim.
Liverpool: Reina, Suarez (Gerrard 75), Maxi Rodriguez, Coates, Kuyt, Spearing, Lucas, Carragher, Kelly (Flanagan 86), Bellamy, Robinson.