LONDON, January 6- Departing captain Steven Gerrard illustrated his importance to Liverpool with two goals as his side avoided FA Cup third-round embarrassment by winning 2-1 at fourth-tier AFC Wimbledon on Monday.
Playing in his first game since announcing that he will leave Liverpool at the end of the season, Gerrard put the visitors ahead with a 12th-minute header at the 4,850-capacity Kingsmeadow stadium in south-west London.
Wimbledon’s man-mountain centre-forward Adebayo Akinfenwa, a Liverpool fan, stabbed home a 36th-minute equaliser, but Gerrard netted a fine free-kick in the second half to earn Brendan Rodgers’s side a home tie with Bolton Wanderers in round four.
“It is going to be my last time, so I want to go all the way,” said Gerrard, a two-time FA Cup-winner, whose 35th birthday falls on the day of this season’s final.
“This is the beauty of the FA Cup. Form goes out of the window. Wimbledon were honest and gave us a real test.”
Gerrard’s strike prevented Neil Ardley’s hosts from emulating the original Wimbledon’s famous 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup final, when Lawrie Sanchez scored the only goal and Dave Beasant saved a penalty from John Aldridge.
But despite defeat, the night proved a triumph for the club, which was formed by supporters in 2002 after Wimbledon were moved 56 miles (90 kilometres) north to Milton Keynes and rebranded as Milton Keynes Dons after failing to find a new ground in the local area.
Having started life in the ninth tier of the English league system, AFC Wimbledon have been promoted five times in the last 11 years and were appearing in the third round for the first time.
“I’ve told the players they have done the club proud, but also they should kick themselves because we are in the business of winning and not being good losers,” beaten manager Ardley told the BBC.
Liverpool manager Rodgers conceded it had been a “tough game”, saying: “Congratulations to AFC Wimbledon. They made it very difficult.”
– Sloppy defending –
Although Rodgers named a strong team, showing only four changes to the side that drew 2-2 with Leicester City on New Year’s Day, it was the hosts who threatened first, with Sean Rigg running onto Matt Tubbs’s flick-on and dragging a shot across goal.
But it was Liverpool who took the lead, with Gerrard spraying a pass wide to right wing-back Javi Manquillo before steaming into the box to meet the Spaniard’s cross with a stooping header.
Lazar Markovic then flashed a cross-shot wide of the Wimbledon goal, but having tested Liverpool’s strength, the home side began to make inroads, abetted by some dangerously sloppy defending.
Rigg saw a close-range snapshot brilliantly tipped over by Simon Mignolet and Tubb hooked a shot fractionally wide before Akinfenwa netted the equaliser.
After Mignolet failed to come for a corner, the ball bounced off Mamadou Sakho’s arm, hit the bar and bounced down for the barrel-chested centre-forward to prod home from a yard.
Wimbledon, 72 places below Liverpool in the league pyramid, threatened to create a sensation early in the second period, with Gerrard obliged to clear a header from Adam Barrett off his own line and Rigg blazing over after stealing past Emre Can.
But a foul on Philippe Coutinho by Barry Fuller on the edge of the Wimbledon box gave Gerrard a chance to restore the visitors’ lead and he took it, arcing a trademark free-kick into the top-left corner.
Dannie Bulman almost equalised within seconds of the restart, but he blazed narrowly over with his left foot.
Liverpool finished the game strongly, with James Shea saving from Rickie Lambert, Coutinho, Gerrard and Markovic, but only a brave stop by Mignolet prevented substitute Adebayo Azeez from equalising in stoppage time.
Gerrard, meanwhile, was denied a hat-trick at the death when his goal-bound shot was blocked on the line by Callum Kennedy, as a captivating cup tie came to a close.