Hold your heads high

Date published: 06 January 2014

Liverpool 2, Athletic 0

AS BRENDAN Rodgers shook hands with every Athletic player as they left the pitch after this spirited attempt to coax another upset, his satisfaction was divided: his victory came at the expense of beating his own son, Latics players Anton.

Athletic’s commitment to playing on the floor nearly got them into trouble against a Premier League side used to closing down at a much quicker pace than Latics’ regular opponents. At others, like in a terrific second-half spell which followed Liverpool’s opening goal, it threatened to lead to an equaliser.

With James Wesolowski back in a Lone Ranger-style protective mask on his injured cheekbone, and Danny Philliskirk also recovering in time to play, Athletic set out with an attacking line-up which also featured firepower in Adam Rooney, Mike Petrasso and Jonson Clarke-Harris.

Korey Smith was booked in the opening minute for a hack on Steven Gerrard, indicating Athletic’s level of determination.

Luis Alberto shaped one shot wide and another too close to Mark Oxley, but this was a cagey affair in which Athletic were snapping into tackles to effectively disrupt Liverpool's rhythm. The only blemish on the visitors’ early display was some poor set-piece deliveries after good positions had been crafted.

Aspas pulled one effort wide close to the break for Liverpool, while at other end Philliskirk didn’t quite wrap his foot around a 25-yard strike in added time at the end of the first period in which Athletic had held their own.

Liverpool’s double half-time substitution, which saw Philippe Coutinho and Lucas Leiva introduced to the action, tilted the game the home side’s way.

They started apace, Gerrard heading narrowly over from one of a succession of corners, before Aspas netted for the first time in a Liverpool shirt since his £7.7million summer move from Celta Vigo.

Sterling took on David Mellor, crossed and as the ball bounced up, Aspas made no mistake in burying his shot into the net across Oxley.

After Philliskirk had again missed the target from long range, James Dayton and debutant loan man Gary Harkins were brought on. As play started to concentrate in Liverpool’s own half, two major incidents almost saw the game levelled.

In the 69th minute, Smith delivered a far-post cross which was nodded back by the returning Philliskirk. As Harkins went to meet it with his head, he was nudged in the back by Jordan Henderson. No spot-kick was given.

Athletic felt aggrieved. But five minutes later, Mike Petrasso almost netted a goal every bit as

memorable as Robbie Simpson’s on the same ground for Athletic two years earlier.

The Canadian’s drag-back turn was Premier League class but alas, for the terrifically-noisy travelling Athletic fans, so was the left-handed save by Brad Jones.

It was as close as Athletic got to giving their fans a moment to cheer. With their own side muted, the Reds contingent were at their most vocal when Luis Suarez was brought off the bench into the fray in the 76th minute.

Agger had been helped off the field by the time Liverpool grabbed their decisive second goal.

Aspas moved down the right and crossed, and though Coutinho’s shot was initially blocked, Sterling’s follow-up which was heading wide was diverted in by the outstretched left leg of the unfortunate Tarkowski. If any player didn’t deserve such an indignity, it was the young centre-back.

Some of his forays forward were a joy to watch and will have had the scouts in the stands waxing lyrical in their reports once again.

The second strike was a blow from which Athletic could not recover.

This time, unlike at Boundary Park when Matt Smith was the two-goal hero just under a year ago, it wasn’t to be for Athletic.

Perhaps it will be different next season, seeing as these occasions in the FA Cup now seem to be annual events.