IT is a rarity that Liverpool are installed as underdogs in any game – especially in a competition they have won a record eight times and against lower league opposition.
Such was the contrasting nature of the form book, high-flying Bournemouth were regarded as many people’s favourites to topple the Premier League’s strugglers in their first ever League Cup quarter-final.
With the Cherries punching above their weight at the top of the Championship as the country’s leading scorers and boasting a 12-game unbeaten run, it was considered a cupset waiting to happen as Brendan Rodgers’ men arrived at Dean Court on the back of their worst top-flight start for 50 years.
Eddie Howe had hoped his side could give the Reds “a run for their money” but Liverpool had clearly neglected to read the script, booking a mouth-watering semi-final against top-flight leaders Chelsea with minimal difficulty.
“I thought it was a brilliant performance from us tonight, it was always going to be a difficult job, but we controlled the game and pressed at the right times,” said Rodgers.
“We thoroughly deserved it.”
Out of the Champions League and frustrated by the brilliance of David de Gea at Old Trafford, a second trip to the south coast this calendar year had added importance for the Merseysiders in a competition which represents their best chance of ending Rodgers’ wait for silverware.
Becoming Bournemouth’s second top-flight scalps of the campaign would have tipped them into the crisis zone but the Reds eased some of the pressure – and quietened the dissenting voices – with the kind of performance which was accustomed last season during their tussle for the title.
Liverpool’s wretched run – with a meagre two victories from their previous 10 – had coincided with the downturn in form of Raheem Sterling, who has evidently been hampered by the extra burden on his shoulders.
The series of misses at Manchester United last Sunday could have dented his confidence but, sporting a new hairdo, the 20-year-old was keen to make amends and provided the perfect response with two well-taken goals which ultimately proved the difference.
“It was nice to score but the important thing is that the team got the win,” said Sterling, after ending a goal drought stretching back almost two months.
Fine margins were the order of the night and Bournemouth will look back on two gilt-edged chances in the first half with deep regret.
Howe, though, will be filled with immense pride, particularly in the way they fought without fear in the second period.
“A mark of our character and the players we have was that we kept going,” the Cherries boss said afterwards.
“We put Liverpool under pressure in the second half and on a different night we’d have scored more goals.”
It is easy to forget the Cherries were sitting 91st in the Football League just six years ago.
Their progression, even from when Liverpool emerged victorious in their FA Cup tie at the turn of the year, has been nothing short of magnificent.
And a first loss since September should not derail their bid for a first ever crack at the top-flight, which continues in earnest with Saturday’s trip to Blackpool.
“The aim is to try and get into the Premier League and we’ll wait to see if we’re good enough to make it,” a disappointed Howe added.
Much had been made of how serious Howe, who defies his tender years with over 300 games as a manager under his belt having only turned 37 last month, would take the occasion.
The ex-Burnley gaffer had made 10 changes for the last round but still overcame Premier League opposition in West Bromwich Albion.
It was only six this time around yet the strength in depth of the squad shone through with the quality selected, including a first League Cup start of the season for 10-goal top scorer Callum Wilson.
The former Coventry hitman was keen to make an impact and could have done so within four minutes but somehow slotted past the post when skilfully fashioning room inside the box.
Jimmy Case boldly stated that Liverpool would be “there for the taking” and the Cherries took to the game to their superior opponents early doors.
Indeed, the attacking intent from both sides was a joy for the 11,000 or so who braved the cold temperatures to witness.
The visitors warmed to the task with Adam Lallana, who began his career at Bournemouth, warming the palms of on-loan Southampton stopper Artur Boruc.
Patience was always going to be a virtue for Liverpool if they were to stand any chance of over-turning odds that were clearly stacked against them.
Their ability to retain possession can never be questioned and a prime example was the build-up to the breakthrough goal.
Some 53 passes were sprayed around before a left-wing cross by Lazar Markovic, one of three players recalled to the side, was nodded back by Jordan Henderson for Sterling to guide into the corner of the net.
The diminutive figure with a rare headed goal, his first with any part of the body since September 20, on the 20-minute mark.
Seven minutes later and the Liverpool outlook became much brighter as Markovic turned from provider to scorer.
It was Premier League quality at its finest again as Phillipe Coutinho, at the end of a well-crafted move, was denied by Boruc.
But, as Tommy Elphick’s appeals for an offside flag were ignored, the keeper could not prevent the Serbian from striking cleanly into the net through a forest of bodies.
The rapier thrust and Liverpool’s clinical edge proved a class apart – something Bournemouth could not match when, immediately at the other end, Yann Kermorgant blazed over with the goal gaping.
With 73% of the play, the visitors were in complete control and captain Steven Gerrard played a big part in dictating the proceedings.
Pulling the strings by stifling the likes of Eunan O’Kane, it was one of the 34-year-old’s better displays in what has been a tough campaign thus far for him and his team-mates.
Bournemouth, so used to dominating the ball in the second tier, found it difficult to chase but there was enough panic setting in the Liverpool defence for Rodgers to replace the much-maligned Dejan Lovren with Mamadou Sakho at the interval.
The Cherries, though, contributed to their own downfall as a sloppy pass was pounced upon quickly by Lucas and Sterling did the rest with a twist, a turn and a composed finish.
It rendered the remainder to be a damage limitation exercise for the Dorset outfit, who got on the scoresheet through a foe familiar to the Reds.
Dan Gosling has inspired the Cherries’ cup run and the ex-Evertonian, who has a Merseyside derby winning goal on his CV, bagged his fifth in the League Cup this term with a low shot that owed much to the butter fingers of stand-in Liverpool keeper Brad Jones.
It brought huge swathes of momentum and Bournemouth gave it their best shot, threatening the possibility of a Crystal Palace-style comeback.
Gosling’s strike rattled the goal frame and Mark Clattenburg was unimpressed when Wilson appeared to be clattered into by Sakho in the box.
As Liverpool provided menace on the counter, Sterling could have had a hat-trick had he not dragged wide from six yards after a neat Lallana lay-off.
The Cherries rally eventually ran out of steam as the Reds killed the tie off with pass after pass.
After all that’s been spoken and written, any sort of result was much-needed for Rodgers and his team.
Time will tell if this can act as a catalyst to kick on – such is their need for a talisman that last season’s 25-goal Daniel Sturridge is linking up with medical experts from a basketball team to gain full fitness as quickly as possible.
But, after avoiding slipping on a potential banana skin, their testing week is not done yet with Arsenal set for an Anfield showdown on Sunday.
On the flip side, Howe wanted to rubber-stamp to the watching public how good his team are.
Their opinion is unlikely to have changed despite the final outcome, just as long as the biggest – and realistically achievable – aim of promotion can be accomplished.