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Feb 19, 2012

Reds profit from Brighton generosity

Liverpool 3-4 Brighton. It would have been the shock scoreline of this season's FA Cup but for one inconvenient detail: the Seagulls, in a demonstration of extraordinary kindness, contrived to put the ball in the back of their own net three times. Liverpool's passage into the quarter-finals and their probable status as favourites came courtesy of their most emphatic win under Kenny Dalglish in 21 years and, in the identity of the scorers, one of the strangest of all. "I think we have a record," said Brighton manager Gus Poyet. "Probably."

The status of record-breakers and history-makers were unwanted souvenirs of their big day. A trip to one of the game's cathedrals ought to be an occasion to savour for lower-league players. This was certainly memorable for Liam Bridcutt (twice) and Lewis Dunk; they are unlikely to be allowed to forget their contributions and Dunk's was especially ignominious. After the flying goalkeeper Peter Brezovan had applied a touch to Luis Suarez's cross, the ball bounced first off the defender's chest and then his thigh, crossing the line before he could retrieve the situation. It was a game of keepy-uppy gone horribly wrong, supplying an element of farce to the misfortune, misjudgements and mistakes that bedevilled Brighton.

While Bridcutt's brace gave him more Liverpool goals than Stewart Downing has mustered, he merits more sympathy. He had an unfortunate capacity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, turning team-mate Sam Vokes' header into his goal after the striker had denied Glen Johnson with a goal-line clearance. His second was the product of diligence, the midfielder materialising on the goal-line to apply the final touch to Steven Gerrard's effort.

"Are you taking Steven's off him as well?" Dalglish asked, assuming there were a mere two own goals. "You cannot blame the boy for wanting to defend his goal."

It was subject to a siege. Seventh in the actual standings, Liverpool are propping up one Premier League table - for chance conversion - and routs have been rare. "We always said we would like to get our conversion rate up and today is not a bad return," Dalglish added.

The novelty element was not confined to the scoreline. In 13 months together at Anfield, Gerrard, Suarez and Andy Carroll had not started together until now. Finally united, they excelled. "The three of them are fantastic footballers and they played really well," Dalglish said. "The more any team gets players like them that are iconic on the pitch, the better their chances." His focus on the collective remains, but he accepted: "Within the team there are always going to be individuals who are attracted to the headlines more than others."

Between them, the headline-makers played a part in each goal. Gerrard's corner was headed in by Martin Skrtel for the opener. Then, after Kazenga LuaLua scored Brighton's one intentional strike with a thunderbolt of a free-kick, Suarez's wonderful touch and low drive preceded Bridcutt's first own goal.

Liverpool's third was a landmark strike, the first time Downing and Carroll have combined for a goal. The theory is that the winger was signed as the striker's supplier and, belatedly, it proved a profitable alliance. The £20 million man cut the ball back; the £35 million striker drilled it in.

Finally, the strike duo flourished, Carroll heading the ball across the six-yard box for Suarez to have the simplest of finishes. To add to the unusual flavour of the day, it was a moment to please both managers. "It was important for him," said Poyet, Suarez's fellow Uruguayan and a vocal defender of his compatriot in recent weeks.

Five minutes earlier, the overworked Brezovan had saved Suarez's penalty and the subsequent rebound after Craig Noone, Liverpool fan and a former roofer who worked on Gerrard's house, had fouled Dirk Kuyt.

Cue a managerial intervention as Dalglish suggested Suarez step up instead of the more reliable Dutchman. "That was my fault, because I let sentiment get in the way," said the Scot. Suarez's presence on the pitch, seven days after a flurry of apologies, was proof that Sir Alex Ferguson's advice is unwelcome at Anfield. The Manchester United manager had suggested the striker should not be allowed to play for Liverpool again. Instead, on a restorative afternoon, he did - with colleagues and crowd, not to mention both managers, willing the ball into the net.

After the suggestions Liverpool lost their moral compass, they are now plotting two paths to Anfield South, the Merseyside moniker for the old Wembley. The Carling Cup final is next, the FA Cup final could follow. After the treble of own goals, they could be set for a Cup double.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Steven Gerrard - There were plenty of contenders in red, but the captain orchestrated affairs with masterly assurance. He was the instigator of many a move and remains the best crosser for Carroll. He deserved a goal, even if it went to the unfortunate Bridcutt.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Dalglish had said Carling Cup final places were at stake and his side responded accordingly. Carroll delivered one of his best displays for the club while Downing was much improved after his nightmare at Old Trafford last week. Daniel Agger and Craig Bellamy were both absent with minor injuries but should be fit for next Sunday's date at Wembley. If so, Jamie Carragher and one other will have to drop out.

BRIGHTON VERDICT: A first defeat of 2012 was something of a reality check for a side aiming to go from League One to the top flight in successive seasons, prompting Poyet to suggest he will need a host of new players if the play-off hopefuls do go up. "It will be a massive change if we achieve it," he said. "I don't want to manage in the Premier League and lose 6-1." Dalglish suggested the scoreline was a little unfair to Brighton and the busy Brezovan and the lively LuaLua certainly deserved better.

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