Brave Mansfield Town bowed out of the FA Cup, as substitute Luis Suarez’s highly-controversial winner booked Liverpool a Fourth Round date with Oldham Athletic.
The Uruguayan used his hands as he bundled in the Reds’ winner on the hour mark, during a game in which the Premier League outfit looked second best for large parts.
On a memorable afternoon in North Nottinghamshire, the celebrated visitors from Merseyside got proceedings underway and enjoyed plenty of possession during the early exchanges.
The Reds dictated play with sumptuous ease, and came close to an early opener when Stewart Downing saw a close range effort blocked by Exodus Geohaghon on four minutes.
Suso then blazed over after cutting inside from the left channel moments later, but the Reds, who last visited a non-league ground for FA Cup action in January 1959, continued to press men forward in abundance.
And Brendan Rodgers’ side soon reaped the rewards of their high-tempo start, as Jonjo Shelvey intelligently slid a cute pass into the path of Daniel Sturridge, who retained his composure to slot beyond an advancing Alan Marriott.
Not satisfied with just a one goal advantage, Liverpool continued to attack with real menace and nearly doubled their lead when John Dempster’s loose backpass almost put Sturridge clear on goal.
Sturridge then wasted a gilt-edge chance on the quarter-hour, as Shelvey lifted a beautiful ball over the Mansfield defence for the striker to latch onto, but his dallying inside the area allowed Marriott to deny him.
Suso fired a free-kick straight into the body of Louis Briscoe in the Reds’ next chance, before Shelvey, who excelled in the centre of the visitors’ midfield three, fired wide from the rebound.
Mansfield had little to shout about early on, but carved out their first meaningful attack midway through the first period as Geohaghon hurled one of his torpedo-like throws into the area, to which Sebastian Coates headed clear.
But Liverpool continued to cause problems, especially with their pace, and when Downing skipped away from Dempster in exquisite style on 26 minutes, the England winger was narrowly off-target with his shot.
Shelvey weaved his way through the centre on the half-hour mark, but Geohaghon, bundling backwards in desperation, did just enough to distract the England midfielder when he shot from just inside the area.
After over 30 minutes of soaking up near-constant pressure, Mansfield enjoyed their first shot on target when Matt Green unleashed a thunderous 25-yard strike that drew a fine save from Brad Jones.
The attempt acted as a catalyst for further Mansfield pressure, as Paul Cox’s side began to show undeniable determination, endeavour and commitment to find an equaliser.
Briscoe deservedly won a corner after outmuscling Jamie Carragher on the by-line, whilst Geohaghon continued to torment his opponents with his teasing long-throw delivery.
Nevertheless, clear-cut chances remained few and far between, due to gruesome figures such as Andre Wisdom, Coates and Carragher dealing with every ball that Mansfield pumped into the six-yard box.
More frustration was soon bestowed upon the hosts when Lee Beevers was cautioned for his collision with Sturridge, but the card-count was quickly levelled following Lucas Leiva’s wreckless lunge on Green.
Sturridge could have doubled Liverpool’s money on the cusp of half-time, when he peeled into empty space inside the area and unleashed a low drive that was expertly knocked wide by Marriott.
Inspired and buoyed by their half-time team talk, the Stags began the second period in storming fashion and created four gilt-edge chances, from which they were unable to score, in as many minutes.
Anthony Howell drew a spectacular one-handed save from Jones after he connected to Lindon Meikle’s low left-wing cross, before Chris Clements caused problems with the subsequent corner.
Jones had already saved another, somewhat scruffy, shot from Howell, prior to deflecting Briscoe’s thunderous left-footed drive through a crowded area, away from the target.
With the One Call Stadium crowd praying for an equaliser, Mansfield were now in full control, oozing class and making the seven-time FA Cup winners look more like a ramshackle outfit.
Dempster then twice came within inches of an equaliser.
On the first occasion, his connection to Geohaghon’s long-throw drifted only inches wide of Jones’ right-hand post, and on the second, his nonchalant back-heel flick was blocked on the line by the Australian keeper.
The Stags had caused pandemonium in their counterparts’ six-yard box and thoroughly deserved an equaliser, but lady luck appeared completely against the Blue Square Bet Premier battlers.
Green charged his way through to reach Meikle’s headed through ball on 51 minutes, but alongside him as he advanced into the area was Carragher, who used his experience to shepherd the striker away from goal.
With Liverpool struggling desperately against a tidal wave of pressure, Reds boss Rodgers was forced into making a double substitution, with Suarez and Jordan Henderson introduced to the action.
The substitution proved to be inspired, as within moments of taking to the field, Suarez doubled the lead in controversial circumstances, to puncture Mansfield’s enthusiasm and hopes of a comeback.
The Uruguayan, who had poked wide with his first touch after combining with Henderson, this time latched onto a long ball over the top from Shelvey, and linked up with Downing, who by now switched to the right.
Downing’s low ball back to Suarez reached him in empty space, and after his initial shot fortuitously ricocheted back into his path off Marriott, the striker bundled the ball home using his wrists.
Despite protests and appeals led by numerous players in amber and blue shirts, the goal was awarded, and a deflated Stags struggled to re-capture the dominance that they had enjoyed only minutes earlier.
Instead it was now the visitors who were now, unfairly, in firm control.
Shelvey threatened to add a third goal following a lay-off from Suarez on 68 minutes, who was unanimously booed every time he touched the ball, regardless of what body-part it was.
As the minutes ebbed away, so did Mansfield’s hopes of a comeback, until Green slotted home and halved the deficit from close-range, following some exquisite build up play from Junior Daniel.
The Stags winger hit a sumptuous ball from the left flank towards Beevers, located deep on the inside-right, who fired a delicious pull-back across the area, which allowed an accepting Green to slot home.
Hopes of a comeback were re-established as One Call Stadium erupted into a pulsating state of pandemonium, excitement and hope ahead of what proved to be a frantic finale.
Geohaghon launched two more of his trademark long-throws into the area, but again, agonisingly, nobody in an amber and blue shirt was able to turn the ball goalwards and force an equaliser.
Once again, Liverpool looked rattled and worried as the Stags continued to pose questions and launch everything that they could deep into the Reds’ six-yard box to test their opponents’ resilience.
Green would have had an open goal, had he not been flagged offside following a Howell shot which he intercepted, whilst his thunderous effort also forced a spectacular, full-stretch save from Jones in stoppage time.
After four torturous added minutes, the Reds ultimately held on to record a slender win and book their place in the Fourth Round, thanks to Suarez’s highly controversial winner.
But brave Mansfield can be thoroughly proud of the desire, endeavour and commitment that they showed in pushing their Premier League opponents all the way in what was a pulsating cup game.
Attendance: 7,574 (1,433 away supporters).