AFC WIMBLEDON 1 LIVERPOOL 2
LIVERPOOL captain Steven Gerrard is hoping to bow out of English football by hoisting the FA Cup on his 35th birthday after his quintessentially heroic display denied AFC Wimbledon a huge third-round shock last night.
The fan-owned fourth-tier outfit, who play home games at non-league Kingstonian and were only formed 12 years ago, rattled their Premier League opponents and had them on the ropes shortly after burly striker Adebayo Akinfenwa’s equaliser.
But Gerrard, whose header opened the scoring, reprised his familiar role of match-winner by curling in a decisive free-kick in his first game since announcing his departure from the club, seemingly for a stint in America, at the end of the season.
The FA Cup final could yet be Gerrard’s farewell appearance for the club he has served his entire career, should they reach the Wembley showpiece on 30 May, and he admits to imagining that as the ideal curtain call.
“That’s what dreams are made of and hopefully that will be the case. I always enjoy the FA Cup, I grew up loving the competition. It’s going to be my last time so I want to make the most of it and go all the way,” said Gerrard.
“If I wasn’t here playing for this team I’d probably be in the stands watching it. I know what it means to every single supporter which is why I always try to give my best. That isn’t always possible every single game but whether I’m playing AC Milan in the Champions League or Wimbledon I’ll always give it my best.”
If Gerrard was at his inspirational best in south London then he needed to be to drag Liverpool into a fourth-round clash against Bolton, as Wimbledon repeatedly caused mayhem in the visitors’ area with high balls and the physicality of 16st Akinfenwa.
The former England skipper appeared to settle Reds nerves when he scored after just 11 minutes, feeding right-back Javier Manquillo to cross and then darting in between two Dons defenders to head past James Shea.
But Liverpool were soon wobbling at set-pieces. Simon Mignolet adroitly tipped over from Sean Rigg but the Belgian goalkeeper quickly undid his good work by flapping at a corner, allowing Akinfenwa to prod home after the ball hit the bar.
Gerrard’s goal-line clearance from Adam Barrett’s header denied Wimbledon the lead just after half-time, before the man of the match bent his 62nd-minute free-kick over the wall and beyond Shea.
Rickie Lambert and Lazar Markovic should have extended Liverpool's lead but finished weakly, though Wimbledon went close to equalising again through Barrett, whose shot skimmed the bar, and substitute Adebayo Azeez.
Wimbledon manager Neil Ardley praised his team but admitted that fatigue hampered them in the closing stages. He said: “I've told the players they have done the club proud but also they should kick themselves because we are in the business of winning and not being good losers.”
Akinfenwa added: “We lost to a piece of magic from Steven Gerrard. But Liverpool know they were in a game today.”
Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers admitted his side were given a run for their money by the League Two outfit and were forced to showcase defensive resolve to ensure their passage to the fourth round. “I thought we started the game well and how we'd want to but then lost our shape and presented them with chances. In the second half we adapted but still had to defend until the end."
FOURTH ROUND DRAW
Southampton or Ipswich Town v Crystal Palace
Cambridge Utd v Manchester Utd
Blackburn Rovers v Swansea City
Chelsea v Millwall or Bradford City
Derby v Scunthorpe or Chesterfield
Preston North End v Sheffield United
Birmingham City v West Bromwich Albion
Aston Villa v AFC Bournemouth
Cardiff City v Reading
Liverpool v Bolton
Burnley or Tottenham Hotspur v Leicester
Brighton and Hove Albion v Arsenal
Rochdale v Stoke City
Sunderland v Fulham or Wolverhampton Wanderers
Doncaster Rovers or Bristol City v Everton or West Ham United
Manchester City v Middlesbrough
Ties to be played 24 and 25 January