Steven Gerrard put his testing week behind him by leading Liverpool to a 2-0 FA Cup third round victory away to fellow northwest side Preston North End at Deepdale on Saturday.
Goals from Spanish duo Albert Riera and Fernando Torres secured a victory for the Premier League leaders against the second-tier team that was only sealed in injury-time.
Liverpool started slowly, though, and the home side, buoyed by a run of four successive home clean sheets, attempted to make an early breakthrough. Scottish winger Ross Wallace forced Diego Cavalieri into the first save of the game with a curling left-foot free-kick on five minutes, but the striker lacked the pace to worry the Brazilian shot-stopper.
Preston’s defense struggled to cope with the penetration of Liverpool’s wide midfielders Ryan Babel and Riera, who created a golden chance for Robbie Keane after racing to the byline. His cross was perfect for Keane to slot into the net from 6m out, but the Ireland striker sliced his shot so much that it almost went out for a throw-in.
Gerrard then tested Preston keeper Andy Lonergan with a snapshot from 20m, before Riera gave Liverpool the lead with a classy 25th minute strike. A Gerrard shot was half-cleared by Preston and the ball dropped to Riera on the edge of the six-yard box. Instead of shooting with his right foot, Riera cut back on to his left and headed away from goal before beating Lonergan with a powerful left-foot shot from 12m out.
Liverpool would have had the game in the bag by halftime had Keane taken two clear chances before the interval.
Keane continued in a similar vein in the second half, missing at the near post from Gerrard’s cross, before Lonergan denied the Liverpool skipper with a brilliant save from his long-range shot in the 59th minute. And five minutes later, Preston believed they had equalized when Sean St Ledger headed in Richard Chaplow’s cross. However, a foul by Jon Parkin on Jamie Carragher led to it being disallowed.
Benitez ended Torres’ six-week, injury-enforced absence by putting him on in place of Keane. Torres’ first effort on goal flew wide, but his second, a tap-in from Gerrard’s pass, made it 2-0.