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Feb 16, 2008

Carnival for Tykes, more woe for Rafa

Liverpool 1 - 2 Barnsley

One day, perhaps, the Brazilian fans will start singing: 'It's just like watching Barnsley.' For sheer drama, however, even the Selecao may struggle to emulate the Tykes today. In the third minute of injury time, Barnsley's captain Brian Howard, seconds after being fouled by Sami Hyypia but denied a penalty, cut in to whip in a shot of unerring accuracy.

Cue pandemonium. Cue Howard wheeling away in a manic celebration. Cue stewards surging to form a barrier in front of Barnsley's vocal travelling contingent. Cue a mixture of anger and disbelief enveloping Anfield. The latest protest against Liverpool's American owners ensued. So, too, did elimination from the FA Cup, an eminently winnable competition for Liverpool.

And the latest and most embarrassing episode in Liverpool's season, their exit from the FA Cup was orchestrated by a cast list drawn entirely from the ranks of the improbable. None, indeed, were more unlikely than Luke Steele. His day job is as West Bromwich Albion's third-choice keeper and in that capacity, his last outing featured an own goal, retrieving the ball from his net five times and a comprehensive beating at the hands of Nottingham Forest's reserves.

Allowed to join a Barnsley team who were lacking the spine of their side – a goalkeeper, a central defender and a striker – were all cup-tied – he produced a display of remarkable defiance. Peter Crouch, Dirk Kuyt, Xabi Alonso, Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun could all testify to Steele's excellence on the day. When he was defeated, defenders Rob Kozluk and Bobby Hassell flung themselves in the path of goalbound shots. It amounted to a remarkable rearguard action.

And for Simon Davey, the lifelong Everton fan who was mentored by David Moyes, vindication. Rumours suggested Thomas Sorensen would be recruited as the stop-gap stopper. He opted for Steele instead, saying: 'There were a lot of eyebrows raised and everyone was talking about big-name keepers coming in but we knew Luke would do a good job for us today and he's done more than a good job. He's got a young face but he's experienced in the head.'

Even Howard lies behind Steele on the list of Barnsley's heroes. Because he plays for one of the least glamorous clubs in the Championship, the midfielder has escaped the attention he merits. But this was his 11th goal of the season, a remarkable return for a central midfielder. Long-range strikes are his forte with today's by no means the most spectacular of his collection.

But his winner came, as Davey admitted, when he was urging his players back to cement a replay. 'There was a lack of discipline from our players, staying up there and putting in the back of net,' he grinned. 'We're trying to keep our shape and then you've got ambitious players who want to go there and take the limelight.

'It's fairytale stuff. As a player, I never played higher than League One. To take a team here against world-class players and a world-class manager and win, it's the best for me.'

World-class is not a description commonly applied to the two men who fashioned Barnsley's leveller. Stephen Foster, whose CV incorporates Scunthorpe and Crewe, and Martin Devaney, the former Cheltenham winger, combined with the latter's cross met by a forceful header from the former.

That came after Babel had supplied Kuyt with Liverpool's opener, ending his 15-match, 774-minute goal drought. It should have proved the prelude to a comfortable win. Instead Liverpool subsided, maintaining their record of failing to beat league or foreign opposition without a goal from either Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres since the Mersey derby.

The Spaniard, Benitez insisted, was injured. But Gerrard remained on the bench for 75 minutes and, along with the omission of Javier Mascherano and Jose Reina, his absence was vital.

Charles Idantje should have done better for the winner but Benitez, his rotation policy back in the spotlight, said: 'I can't blame the keeper. The team as a team was working really hard. In terms of the work rate, you cannot blame them. When you are creating so many chances, you must approach the next game doing just the same.'

Doing the same against Inter would surely result in elimination from the Champions League. Doing the same on a regular basis would make Benitez's position more fragile. And doing the same on their travels would have made it less of a surprise that Barnsley – whose away record is awful – managed such a stirring victory.

But just occasionally the FA Cup's hackneyed clichés about magic and romance appear to contain an element of truth. This was definitely one of those days.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luke Steele – 'Absolutely unbelievable,' said Howard, and no one disagreed. The Barnsley captain said his team were willing to die for the cause yet, until earlier this week, it was not even Steele's cause. But he was magnificent.

MOAN OF THE MATCH: The majority of Barnsley's season ticket holders were unable to be at Anfield. In a fiasco for which the club was entirely culpable, it denied many of them the chance to witness the most memorable day in their recent history. Davey is a progressive manager who has excelled on limited resources, but there is an amateurism about Barnsley as a club.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Benitez's view that 'we are talking the same' referred to missed chances. It could have been a reference to a dependence on Torres and Gerrard, the failure of the lesser lights to compensate for their absence and a sense of underachievement. The Inter match was already vital; now it is still more significant.

BARNSLEY VERDICT: Renowned as one of the Championship's better passing teams, the real surprise was their reliability of their defending. As Howard said, if they played like that more regularly, a play-off place would beckon. WHAT'S THE RUSH?: Before the game, a tourist with a digital camera approached the press box, gestured to the radio gantry and asked: 'Is that Ian Rush?' Two decades on, John Aldridge finds himself still confused with his predecessor in the Liverpool attack. And it might be an idea for some of the Reds' more recently acquired fans to recognise former players, rather than merely filming them.


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