Liverpool scraped through to the Last 16 of the Capital One Cup after a sensational penalty shootout. The Reds beat Middlesbrough 14-13 on penalties after the game had finished 2-2 after extra time.
But the performance will raise more questions about a Liverpool side that have had a slow start to the season. They came into the game following back to back Premier League defeats against Aston Villa and West Ham United, as well as an unconvincing 2-1 win against Ludogorets in the Champions League.
With talismanic striker Daniel Sturridge injured, Brendan Rodgers has struggled to adapt his system and fielded a weakened side against the Teesiders. Kolo Toure, Jordan Rossiter and Rickie Lambert all featured from the start, whilst Jose Enrique came in at left back in place of Alberto Moreno.
Lambert was named captain by Rodgers on his first competitive start for the club, but it was 17-year-old Rossiter that made the early headlines, bagging his first goal for the club ten minutes into his debut. Lambert had an effort blocked by Boro keeper Jamaal Blackman, but the rebound fell kindly to Rossiter, who found the net from 30 yards. Blackman could have done better but Rossiter was overjoyed at becoming the second youngest goalscorer for the Reds, behind Michael Owen.
But if anybody thought that the early goal would settle Liverpool’s nerves, they were proven wrong as the Reds struggled to wrap the game up. Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana and Lucas Leiva were all on the pitch, along with new boy Lazar Markovic, but none of them could find the creative spark, and the Merseyside giants were punished by a set piece. Grant Leadbitter whipped in a free kick with just over an hour gone and Adam Reach headed home beyond Simon Mignolet.
Boro then attempted to cause an upset and Adam Clayton came close to scoring twice, forcing Mignolet into a good stop and striking the post. The game went into extra time and young Spaniard Suso appeared to have given Liverpool the win, slotting home after 109 minutes.
But in the last minute of added time in extra time, Sterling gave the ball away in the Liverpool half, the ball was played into space and Patrick Bamford got to it ahead of Toure, who sent him sprawling. The penalty was given and Bamford scored to set up a tense finale from twelve yards.
As the shootout began, the Reds took the initiative as Mignolet saved from Bamford with the first kick. Then Raheem Sterling stepped up to take Liverpool’s fifth and final penalty, but his effort was saved by Boro keeper Blackman, and the shootout was sent to sudden death.
Incredibly, every player that hadn’t yet taken a penalty managed to net, including both goalkeepers. This meant that the shootout would go round again, with the likes of Mario Balotelli and Bamford taking their second spot kicks.
Eventually, Albert Adomah missed for Boro and Liverpool were through. It was a bitterly disappointing end to a spirited performance from Boro, yet a relief for Rodgers, who hailed his young players’ nerves.
But he must be a little bit concerned about the lack of form his side have shown ahead of the Merseyside derby against Everton. Having spent over £100m on new players this summer, Liverpool were expected to hit the ground running despite the departure of Luis Suarez to Barcelona. But they have struggled so far, and still have big games against the likes of Real Madrid to come.
There is no doubt that winning against Middlesbrough will provide the team with a boost in morale, but it was a fans that should have been won more comfortably.
Ironically, the game may end up being more of a morale booster for the defeated team. Middlesbrough have been in good form in the Championship, but the brilliant display from the Teesiders will give them confidence that they can continue the form.
Aitor Karanka was, unsurprisingly, full of praise for his players, and Boro fans were over the moon with the performance, staying well after the final whistle to praise the players.
Liverpool fans will know the team must perform better if they are to win against their fierce rivals at Anfield at the weekend. Rodgers will be hoping that the spirit shown will be evident again when they play Everton, because a third straight league defeat would definitely not be acceptable.