Belfast Telegraph

Super Steven Gerrard shows that he is still the Don

AFC Wimbledon 1 - Liverpool 2

By Glenn Moore

When Steven Gerrard arrives in the US, and is asked who else might be worth luring Stateside, he just might volunteer the name Adebayo Akinfenwa. The Beast may look more like a linebacker than a footballer but the Wimbledon No.10 is a cult hero wherever he goes and he can play a bit too.

'Unleash the Beast' demanded the banner behind the goal. Wimbledon did and but for a two-goal performance by Gerrard that rolled back the years, this third round tie would have stood alongside Leeds '73 and Wembley '88 in the Wombles' legend.

In the 27 years since Lawrie Sanchez headed the Crazy Gang into history much has changed for both clubs, but especially Wimbledon.

Liverpool have slipped from England's dominant team to part of the chasing pack and Wimbledon fans have had their club stolen to Milton Keynes, started a new team and won five promotions in nine years.

It is an incredible achievement but the Dons have ambitions far beyond the bottom tier. In their first season back in the Football League they stayed up only on the final day, but under Neal Ardley they have become established in the division and are now eyeing the play-offs.

Wimbledon are also hoping to go places in a more literal way: back to Merton, and their previous Plough Lane home. The old ground is now flats, but Wimbledon have a planning application in to convert the adjacent greyhound stadium into a £16m, 11,000-seat stadium with capacity to extend to 20,000. To date that is the only application submitted, but a rival consortium is seeking to refurbish the dog track and maintain racing.

That they need to move is undisputed. Kingsmeadow originally belonged to Kingstonian, once a non-League force but now Wimbledon's tenants and in the Ryman League.

Though the Dons have spent significantly to upgrade the facilities, it remains a non-League ground in many respects. Last night there was temporary scaffolding everywhere.

Television crews and cameras were perched upon stand roofs and the print media were tucked away in a corner above the burger van. Had the burgers caught light there would have been an almighty scramble for the only available ladder back to terra firma. As it was, the main danger was of the whole structure tipping over as reporters tried in vain to glimpse the goal at the Surbiton end of the ground.

More comfortably seated were a gallery of former Dons players. All the 1988 winners had been invited and Sanchez, Dave Beasant and John Scales were chewing the cud pitchside with a relaxed Ardley less than an hour before kick-off.

With all the expectation on Brendan Rodgers and his team, Ardley had reason to be calm. Indeed, he could even be confident. Fan-owned Wimbledon have scraped together enough cash to enable Ardley to put together one of the division's best front pairings in Akinfenwa and Bournemouth loanee Matt Tubbs. Given Liverpool's defensive problems, the home support fancied their chances of scoring at least once.

However, when the teamsheets came out it became clear keeping a clean sheet would be tough. Kingsmeadow is an unpropitious venue for the first leg of Gerrard's farewell tour but the skipper was included in a very strong Liverpool side.

Raheem Sterling was rested, and Adam Lallana injured, but the other two changes Rodgers had made to the XI that threw away a two-goal lead at home to Leicester City on New Year's Day strengthened the team with Martin Skrtel and Lazar Markovic returning.

The fourth-round draw, shamefully allowed by the Football Association to be made before this round had finished, offered up a home tie against Bolton and the prospect of a reunion with Emile Heskey for Liverpool.

First, though, Wimbledon had to be dealt with and the visitors were quickly warned that this could not be taken for granted when Sean Rigg broke down the left and drove a shot past the far post.

Liverpool, however, already dominated possession and in the 12th minute a sweeping passing move penetrated Dons' well-drilled defence.

Having strung several passes across the back, Liverpool advanced through Lucas, then Gerrard, who fed Javier Manquillo on the right and maintained his run into the area, neatly meeting the cross and directing a header inside the far post. It was his 181st Liverpool goal.

A Markovic cross-shot flashed across goal soon after but Liverpool then seemed to sit back and Wimbledon grew in confidence. On the half-hour George Francomb forced a corner from which he and Adam Barrett had shots blocked before Simon Mignolet had to smartly turn over Rigg's close-range shot.

Three minutes later a long ball from James Shea, and Akinfenwa's muscular presence, caused problems and Tubbs hooked a volley just wide.

Suddenly Liverpool were wobbling. The Beast moved in for the kill. From another Francomb corner, Mignolet flapped as Barry Fuller nudged the ball against the bar, Akinfenwa and Mamadou Sakho fought for the rebound and the ball rolled in.

Dons continued to press after the break and from another corner Barrett headed goalwards, only for Gerrard - who else - to head off the line. Captain Marvel's next trick was even more spectacular. Fuller ploughed through Philippe Coutinho 20 yards out and Gerrard beautifully curled in the free-kick.

Chances continued to flow with Dannie Bulman shooting over, Shea saving well from Ricky Lambert and Coutinho and Adebayo Azeez going close. Markovic should then have put the tie to bed on the counter-attack but shot weakly at Shea.

It thus needed a brave save by Mignolet at Azeez's feet to preserve Liverpool's lead before a post denied Gerrard his sought-after hat-trick.

A different result then, but a fitting coda to 1988 and all that.

AFC Wimbledon: Shea, Fuller, Goodman, Barrett, Kennedy, Francomb (Sutherland 86), Moore (Pell 86), Bulman, Rigg (Azeez 79), Tubbs, Akinfenwa. Subs Not Used: Bennett, Oakley, McDonnell, Harrison.

Booked: Akinfenwa, Fuller, Goodman.

Goal: Akinfenwa 36

Liverpool: Mignolet, Can, Skrtel, Sakho, Manquillo (Jose Enrique 71), Henderson, Lucas, Markovic (Toure 86), Gerrard, Lambert (Balotelli 79), Coutinho. Subs Not Used: Moreno, Borini, Williams, Ward.

Booked: Coutinho.

Goals: Gerrard 12,62.

Man of the match: Gerrard

Match rating: 7/10

Referee: Jon Moss (W Yorkshire)

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