Liverpool show strength at the seaside
A year after the embarrassment of being dumped out of the Carling Cup by Northampton following a dreadful performance and a penalty shootout defeat, Liverpool took another step towards permanently banishing the ghosts of Roy Hodgson's reign by beating a resilient Brighton side to secure their place in the fourth round.
Many Reds fans point to the Northampton defeat as the nadir of a period that brought so many lows for the club, and Wednesday night's victory will have been particularly welcome for starters Jay Spearing, Lucas Leiva and Martin Kelly, who all played on that miserable night on Merseyside.
The spirits around the club have been lifted since then, with Kenny Dalglish certainly steadying the ship since arriving in January. Recent defeats against Stoke and Tottenham have shown it won't all be plain sailing for the Liverpool boss but he managed to sidestep a potential banana skin against the Championship high-fliers, as goals from Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt helped secure a 2-1 win. The icing on Dalglish's cake came when he brought on Steven Gerrard as a second-half substitute, with the Liverpool "talisman" - as the Scot repeatedly labelled him - making his long-awaited return after six months out through injury.
There were plenty of other positives for Dalglish to take, particularly the Reds' performance in the opening 45 minutes as Maxi, Dirk Kuyt, Craig Bellamy and Luis Suarez left the Seagulls grounded - interchanging positions and giving 20-year-old Brighton centre-back Steve Cook a torrid time on his first start of the season. Bellamy, who opened the scoring with a smart left-foot finish across Casper Ankergren, was especially lively and appears to be relishing being back at the club he left three years ago. Dalglish said of his display: "He was fantastic, when he came in we said he'd make a contribution and it's not taken him long. He's a good footballer, an intelligent footballer."
Liverpool appear to have plenty more of those than they did 12 months ago, and though Dalglish did not directly refer to the Carling Cup humiliation against Northampton after the game, he continues to distance himself from the disastrous Hodgson regime at every opportunity. "We've got a stronger squad than what we had last year and that's reflected in the team we picked," Dalglish said. Referring to the depth of his squad has become an oft-repeated post-match mantra for Dalglish this season and each time it is spoken feels like the Scot is pricking a pin into an already well-punctured voodoo doll of Hodgson.
But Dalglish has not created a flawless side and the Reds' inability to put the game to bed before the interval - Bellamy crashed a 35-yard free-kick against the bar, while Suarez twice missed the far post by inches - nearly cost them after Brighton underwent a half-time transformation akin to one of the city's many drag queens preparing for a night out. " I think it was an easy [half-time] meeting, said Seagulls boss Poyet. "It was me at my best. I'm very pleased and proud for the players. We played an unbelievable second half. It's the first time I can say I will go home happy losing."
Having been like a litter of rabbits in Liverpool's headlights before the break, Brighton no longer looked dazzled after it. Playing with no fear, they - and most notably boyhood Liverpool fan Craig Noone - took the game by the scruff of the neck. The former Skelmersdale United frontman, who revealed before the game that he had once tiled the roof of hero Steven Gerrard before he emerged from non-league football three years ago, was sensational for the Seagulls and almost claimed a dream goal when his fierce drive struck the crossbar.
Both sides were able to introduce former Champions League finalists from the bench as Gerrard came on for Liverpool and former Valencia star Vicente took to the field for Brighton. Seagulls supporters looked enthralled by the prospect of the former Spain winger pulling the strings in their bid for promotion to the top flight, and he showed glimpses of why Poyet believes he "will have one of the best players in the division without any doubt" if he adapts to English football.
His first taste, though, was of defeat, as Liverpool's pacy frontline were the undoing of Poyet's side - Kuyt finishing off a swift counter-attack, led by Bellamy and Maxi. Ashley Barnes' goal from the penalty spot was deserved but came too late, as Brighton were left to rue not making their 60% share of second-half possession count.
For Dalglish, who came across significantly colder in his post-match press conference than the charismatic Poyet despite having won the match, the quest for the trophy he won four times as a player, but that eluded him during his first spell as a manager, continues.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Craig Noone. While Luis Suarez and Craig Bellamy's busy movement was the highlight of the first half, it was a virtuoso performance from Liverpool fanatic Craig Noone that really got tongues wagging in the press box. He sprung into life after the interval, orchestrating proceedings with incisive passing and intelligent runs, and winning the praise of Steven Gerrard, who said: "He did a great job on my roof and a great job on the pitch."
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Appeared to run out of steam a little after a dominant first 45 should have yielded more than just a one-goal lead. Lucas continues to look one of the Reds' most improved players, while the pace of a hungry Craig Bellamy's pace was troublesome throughout. Debutant Sebastian Coates also recovered from one hairy moment - when his dangerous pass out of defence almost led to the Liverpool conceding - to put in a reasonably assured performance.
BRIGHTON VERDICT: After looking a touch overawed in the first half, Gus Poyet's side came out in the second period and played the sort of attractivesmart, passing football that has won them plenty admirers in what has been an impressive start to life in the Championship this season.
AMEX PAYS OUT: Brighton's shiny new arena is a vast improvement on the shed-like Withdean Stadium they departed last season. An increase in capacity from just under 9,000 to just over 22,000, coupled with the absence of the athletics track that blighted the Withdean has helped create an electric atmosphere and it would be little surprise if the Amex Stadium is hosting Premier League football within the next few years.