MANSFIELD // When Brendan Rodgers brought on Luis Suarez, Mansfield Town deemed it a badge of honour that Liverpool needed the man the non-league club's manager called "an entertainer, a goalscorer and one of the best strikers in world football".
This was proof their second-half rally had worried the seven-time English FA Cup winners.
Five minutes later, Mansfield were not flattered but frustrated as Suarez, yet again, found himself at the centre of controversy.
Liverpool's second goal earned them a fourth-round tie at Oldham but, before the Uruguayan tapped the ball into the empty net, it came off his hand.
"There's no doubt it was handball," said the Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.
"What the referee and the officials are looking at is, was it deliberate and it clearly wasn't. It is obviously unfortunate for Mansfield and lucky for us."
The Mansfield manager Paul Cox, showing dignity in defeat, was reluctant to complain: "I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was a reaction."
However, his chief executive Carolyn Radford was more outspoken. "It is a little bit like it was stolen from us," she said. "We should at least be having a replay."
They deserved it for their spirited fightback, interrupted only by Suarez's strike.
It followed a wonderful move, started by Jonjo Shelvey with a sweeping long pass to Suarez, who then exchanged passes with Stewart Downing.
When the striker's initial shot was saved by Alan Marriott, however, he then handled.
Some thought it intentional, some accidental, but the unsighted referee Andre Marriner awarded the goal.
If nothing else, it was proof of Suarez's capacity to overshadow everyone else.
Under other circumstances, the scoring debut of a £12 million (Dh70.8m) signing would have been more noteworthy.
In the first half, Daniel Sturridge's pace and movement were too much for Mansfield which, as their stadium and entire squad have a collective value smaller than his transfer fee, was not surprising.
But as, with the notable exceptions of Fernando Torres and Suarez, many of Liverpool's recent striking signings have struggled to open their account, it bodes well for Sturridge that his wait lasted less than seven minutes.
Shelvey threaded a pass through a static Stags defence and Sturridge calmly sidefooted in.
Indeed, the same combination should have produced a second goal within a quarter of an hour, Shelvey sending Sturridge through but he failed to outfox Marriott.
"Daniel's was a terrific finish," Rodgers said. "He is a goalscorer. He is nowhere near fully fit but he is going to create chances and have opportunities."
He was denied them at Chelsea. It is a curiosity that Sturridge's Stamford Bridge career produced two winners' medals, although he has only been on the pitch for a minute in the finals.
If the competition has been kind to him, the move to Liverpool is a sign that first-team football is taking precedent over filling his trophy cabinet.
This represented his first start in seven weeks and offered encouragement, not least in his burgeoning understanding with Shelvey.
Indeed, the 20 year old exerted a major influence as the advanced central midfielder. The creator of a series of chances, he could have been the scorer after a role reversal with Sturridge.
Shelvey made a long break from his own half but could not quite get enough power on his shot to defeat Marriott.
"We should have scored more goals," Rodgers said.
Then it looked like a rout was on the cards. But, outclassed for the first half-hour, Mansfield began the second period with intensity and energy.
The previously underworked Brad Jones made a fine reflex save from Anthony Howell's close-range effort and parried two drives from Louis Briscoe before Matt Green's back-heeled effort was blocked on the line by a combination of the goalkeeper and Joe Allen, the latter inadvertently using his arm.
"That, for me, is a penalty," added Cox.
With Liverpool under the cosh, the response from Rodgers was to call upon Suarez. Mansfield lost momentum, only regaining it in the final quarter of an hour.
While the indefatigable Green was to score the goal that his, and Mansfield's efforts, merited, it rendered it all the more galling for them that Suarez's contentious effort proved decisive.
Two teams separated by 93 league places were divided by just one goal that should not have stood.
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