Suarez plays the villain again
He started on the bench. He watched his side's new £12 million signing score on his debut. And yet still Luis Suarez managed to make himself the centre of attention. Controversy follows the Uruguayan whenever he steps on to a football field. The helping hand he gave to Liverpool at Mansfield both edged them through a tricky FA Cup tie and overshadowed it.
Liverpool were leading through Daniel Sturridge's early opener when Suarez made his mark. And no one had any doubt that it was handball. Liverpool's No. 7 had only been on the field for three minutes when he took on Jonjo Shelvey's pass, used his hand to control the rebound after goalkeeper Alan Marriott had saved his first effort, and ran the loose ball almost apologetically into the net.
As Mansfield's players appealed, referee Andre Marriner allowed the goal to stand, having judged that the handball was not deliberate. Loud chants of "cheat" resounded round the One Call Stadium. There was a strong sense of injustice.
"When you see Luis Suarez laughing as he kicked the ball across the line, it's clear he knows what's happened," said Marriott. "Even Stewart Downing said to us: 'I can't believe a professional official has missed that'."
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers did not try to argue against Mansfield's claims of handball; only that Suarez had not cheated. "Yeah, it hit his hand," Rodgers said. "There was no question about that. It wasn't deliberate, and that was the feeling I got when I saw it.
"And straight away, before the ball came out of the net, I said to the fourth official: 'Was that handball?' And he said it was, but it wasn't deliberate. It rebounded off him."
Rodgers seems to have spent much of his short reign at Anfield fielding one question after another about Suarez's adventures, about accusations of cheating. The Liverpool manager is not one to get riled easily, but there is a sense that the jibes are starting to test his patience.
"If it was someone else, we probably wouldn't be discussing it in this detail," he said after the game. "Sometimes these sort of things follow players. I think in this country, we need to enjoy it while he's here, because he's a brilliant talent. He's a good man as well. A good family man."
The goal was harsh on Mansfield, a Conference side lying 93 places below Liverpool in the football pyramid, who were looking to become the first non-league team to knock English top-flight opposition out of the FA Cup since Sutton United beat Coventry in 1989. They showed a touch of class off the field by putting the names of the Hillsborough victims on 96 empty seats in an unused section of the away end. On the field, they showed a level of commitment that might, with a little luck, have earned them a replay.
Yet in the first half-an-hour, there looked to be no chance of an upset, with Liverpool cruising and the minnows overawed. Sturridge took only seven minutes to score his first goal for his new club, four days after completing a move from Chelsea. As the striker took on Shelvey's through pass, skipped clear of a malfunctioning offside trap and stroked the ball past Marriott, it looked as though Rodgers would enjoy a comfortable afternoon.
Indeed, as Sturridge strolled through on to another Shelvey pass moments later, only to dawdle and allow Marriott to save, it was tempting to wonder if the non-leaguers would put up any sort of challenge at all. Andre Wisdom was denied by Lindon Meikle's saving tackle, Downing by a last-ditch Chris Clements block, Shelvey by another Marriott save.
"In the first half, we played the occasion, and not the match," Mansfield manager Paul Cox admitted. "We stood off Liverpool and let them play."
It seemed as if Cox's eventful week was set for a flat end. The Mansfield manager, celebrating his 41st birthday as he stood on the touchline, had married his fiancée Natalie Bertin on the Friday before Liverpool's visit; the marquee set up for the reception had been left in the club car park to double up as a hospitality tent for the game.
Gradually, though, his players started to find their nerve. Leading scorer Matt Green's 20-yard shot was pushed aside by Brad Jones just before half-time; it was the sign of things to come after the break.
Mansfield started the second half with an aggressive intent that made the visitors wobble. Had it not been for the endeavour of Jamie Carragher and the reflexes of Jones in the opening 10 minutes of the second half, they might have cracked.
Carragher made vital blocks to deny Anthony Howell twice, while Jones had to save two Louis Briscoe efforts, then Joe Allen kept out Green's close-range backheel.
Rodgers, who had made eight changes to rest key players, including captain Steven Gerrard, after a busy Christmas programme, decided to call for Suarez from the bench, and got reward almost immediately. To his great credit, Mansfield's manager did not blame the striker for claiming his handball goal.
"I don't think Luis Suarez did anything wrong," Cox said. "If the shoe had been on the other foot, we'd have taken it."
Cox felt his team had a couple of good penalty shouts for handball rejected, but his players did not give up, even as Shelvey passed up a good chance to make it 3-0 on the break. With 11 minutes left, Mansfield's top scorer Green half-volleyed in after Lee Beevers had headed the ball back across goal. "It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life," Green said.
For a few minutes, the non-leaguers had dreams of a replay at Anfield. But it wasn't to be. While Liverpool prepare for a visit to Manchester United next weekend, Mansfield have a home league game against Kidderminster to look forward to.
"We'll come back down to earth with a massive bump when the players come back in on Tuesday," Cox said. "But I'll expect these standards to be carried through into the league campaign now."
It is unlikely that Kidderminster will bring anyone who causes quite as much of a fuss as Luis Suarez. MAN OF THE MATCH: Jamie Carragher - Stand-in captain for the day as Steven Gerrard was rested, Carragher led by example, throwing himself into tackles and blocks to keep Liverpool in front as a determined Mansfield side threatened to embarrass them.
MANSFIELD VERDICT: Paul Cox's non-leaguers looked to have stage fright for the opening half-an-hour, but recovered to put up a good fight, and give their illustrious opponents a good fright. They were unlucky not to equalise during a good spell of pressure early in the second half, and very unlucky to see Luis Suarez's goal stand despite a clear handball.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Brendan Rodgers spoke before the match of the need for his side to match Mansfield for effort and let their quality do the rest. Over 90 minutes, they just about had enough to see them through, but they needed a hefty dollop of good fortune too.