A CONTROVERSIAL goal by Luis Suarez turned out to be the only difference between Conference battlers Mansfield Town and the millionaires of Premiership Liverpool as the Reds won a thrilling FA Cup third round tie 2-1 at the One Call Stadium this afternoon.
TV replays showed the winning goal on 59 minutes had gone in off the Uruguayan’s hand, but referee Andrew Marriner decided it wasn’t deliberate and the goal was allowed to stand.
That made it 2-0, but the resilient Stags produced a fantastic second half to push the visitors all the way, Matt Green’s deserved 79th minute reply setting up a thrilling finish in a classic FA Cup tie.
It was sad that the winning goal was so controversial, the Stags having been on the receiving end of bad decisions against Liverpool twice in two League Cup ties with them back in the 70s.
Mansfield seemed to pay the star-studded visitors too much respect in the first half as the Reds dominated possession, Stags completely starved of the ball for long periods.
And they were stung by a goal from debut-making Daniel Sturridge after only seven minutes which could have spelled disaster.
After that Liverpool wasted several good chances to put the tie beyond the home side, Alan Marriott in great form in the Stags’ goal.
It was gritty stuff from the Stags as they hung on by the seat of their pants to reach half-time still only the one goal behind.
However, when Mansfield then came out all guns blazing after the break, we had a fantastic tie on our hands with the home fans turning up the volume and Liverpool clearly reeling, Brendan Rogers making a double substitution on 55 minutes, after Matt Green had almost levelled with a backheel.
The changes saw the introduction of the controversial yet hugely talented Suarez who, within four minutes had produced his ‘hand of god’ winner.
Massive credit is due to Stags for not caving in at this point and piling on the pressure with Brad Jones making a string of saves.
He was finally beaten by Green’s rasping half-volley to keep the dream alive.
But Liverpool hung on to book their passage.
No one who managed to bag a ticket for this game will ever forget it.
Yet the most important thing for the club is to now see how many new fans they may have won over for the important league visit of Kidderminster next weekend.
And the players can stand taller, knowing they were every bit the equal of the Premier league side in the second half.
Boss Paul Cox, celebrating his birthday just two days after getting married, made one change, bringing back winger Louis Briscoe in place of Junior Daniel.
Otherwise Cox kept faith with the players and the 4-3-3 line-up that saw the Stags win 3-0 at Alfreton on New Year’s Day.
As expected, Liverpool did leave out some of the big guns, but Suarez was on the bench and there were enough top quality first team players in the starting XI to keep both sets of fans happy and a debut for the Reds’ new £12m striker Sturridge.
The pre-match draw handed the winners a trip to Oldham Athletic.
Amid a superb atmosphere, Liverpool kicked off and played some early keep-ball, not giving Stags a kick for over two minutes.
In the fourth minute, with Mansfield still unable to take possession, Downing had a 20 yard shot deflect for a corner which Howell rose to head away.
Then Suso was well over with a 25 yard effort after ghosting inside from the right.
Home noise increased as Murray tried to put Green in on goal with a lovely ball over the top on six minutes, but it was just too hard and ran through for Jones.
Sadly it took just seven minutes for the Anfield giants top open their account.
Shelvey’s pinpoint through ball carved open the home defence down the centre as new boy Sturridge skipped away to coolly open his account for his new club, slotting past a helpless Marriott.
Dempster almost gifted Liverpool a second three minutes later with a nervous short backpass that left Marriott having to act quickly to drop on it.
It took Stags 11 minutes to finally get some decent possession which ended with Meikle upended 25 yards from goal. But Clements saw his powerful free kick rebound off the Liverpool wall.
Allen tested Marriott with a low shot from 20 yards from a well-worked short corner though the shot was straight at him and a comfy take.
Allen’s loose pass then offered Stags some hope as Howell burst forward and tried to put Green in, again the pass too hard.
Sturridge should have doubled his tally on 15 minutes after being put through again by Shelvey. But Marriott stood up strong and brave to this time beat away his finish.
Two minutes later, Suso sent a tame free kick into the home wall and Shelvey poked a poor follow-up well wide.
Dempster slid in with a superb last ditch tackle as Sturridge threatened again on the left of the box.
Clever, quick passes from Sturridge and Shelvey almost created a goal for Wisdom, this time Meikle back to slide in and win a crucial tackle on the edge of the home six yard box.
Carragher headed clear a Clements free kick to finally give Geohaghon his first long throwing opportunity on 23 minutes which was again headed clear.
A second followed soon after which found its way through to the hands of Jones.
Shelvey put yet another through ball for Sturridge to chase and again Marriott had to anticipate and move quickly to dive on the ball.
The Red machine rolled forward relentlessly and Clements had to get in a block on a Downing shot.
Sturridge tried to return the compliment by sending Shelvey through on 29 minutes. But Geohaghon stayed in pursuit and did just enough to see the ball safely back in the hands of Marriott.
On 33 minutes some of the best home pressure so far saw Green finally test Jones with a 20-yard stinger, the keeper beating it away to his right.
Geohaghon then did well to throw his body on the way of Shelvey after great work from Sturridge had taken him to the right by-line before pulling a dangerous ball back towards Shelvey at the near post.
Beevers brought down Sturridge to earn the first booking on 37 minutes. A minute later Lucas was also cautioned for hauling down Green.
Jones had to fist away another Geohaghon throw, then Stags won their first corner on 40 minutes but conceded a silly foul as it came over.
Meikle did well to make space for himself on the left before lashing the ball wildly across the box behind the waiting Green and Howell.
Shelvey and Sturridge were causing mayhem and a minute from the break another through ball from Shelvey put Sturridge in space on the right. He fired hard and low towards the far post where the ball seemed to beat Marriott’s hand and go for a goalkick but was deemed a save and a corner by the referee.
But Liverpool were unable to make anything of the flag kick as we entered a minute of stoppage time.
Stags were warmly applauded from the field as they remained firmly in the contest at the break.
Stags were almost level within 40 seconds as Green found Howell at the near post where his attempted finish was blocked for a corner by Carragher.
Sturridge was booked for his foul on Thompson on 47 minutes.
Stags were on fire and Carragher had to get his foot in the way of another Howell shot.
Then Briscoe had a blast at goal stopped by the keeper before, seconds later, a near post by Briscoe, Green was foiled at the near post by the evergreen Carragher.
A Jones flap conceded another home corner as the Stags fans began to make themselves heard with their side throwing everything at their illustrious opponents.
Carragher again did a great job to stop Green getting a shot away from a Meikle header.
And on 53 minutes a crossfield ball from Murray set up Briscoe for a rasping shot that Jones turned away.
The home corner saw Geohaghon’s header blocked in a mass of players and then a cheeky Green backheel saved at point blank range by Jones, who had become the busier of the keepers.
Liverpool then threatened to race clear for a second, but Sturridge sent his finish wide of the far post.
Clearly rattled by the home onslaught, Liverpool made two changes on 55 minutes, sending on Suarez and Henderson for Sturridge and Suso.
Within seconds Suarez had spun on the right and, with the outside of his boot, curled a superb effort just wide of the far post.
And within four minutes of coming on, Suarez made it 2-0 on 59 minutes, albeit in controversial circumstances.
Shelvey’s long ball over the top picked out the run of Suarez. His first shot was well saved by Marriott, but the ball then appeared to cannon back off the hand of Suarez into the net.
Stags protested to the officials and TV replays seemed to confirm they had a case. But the luck was with the Merseysiders as the goal was allowed to stand.
Green beat the Liverpool offside line on 64 minutes to reach Meikle’s lofted ball only to then curl well over the far angle.
At this point Daniel took over from Briscoe on the wing for the home side.
Stags won a corner on 68 minutes which almost led to a third for the visitors as they broken quickly from Murray’s loose pass and, three on one at one stage, it ended with Suarez setting up Shelvey to his left for a low finish wide of the far post.
Clements shot tamely at Jones in the next home attack as Stags desperately searched for a way back into the tie.
Shelvey might have added a third on 77 minutes but, after controlling a far post cross well on his chest, sliced his volleyed finish wide to jeers from the home fans.
During a 78th minute stoppage sadly a Stags fan raced onto the pitch and approached Suarez but was quickly wrestled out of the way by stewards and led away by police.
Stags then set the stadium alight with a hugely deserved goal on 79 minutes.
A long ball to the back post saw Beevers knock it down towards Green whose half-volley eventually found the net from 12 yards, despite several Liverpool players trying to keep it from crossing the line.
Big striker Rhead quickly replaced Clements on 81 minutes as the stage was set fro a grandstand finish to a superb FA Cup tie.
A Liverpool break saw Suarez tee up Robinson, who lifted his finish well over.
Stags seemed hard done to again from a long Geohaghon throw which seemed to skim off a Liverpool head and pass narrowly wide for a corner, but a goalkick was awarded.
Rhead headed superbly on from a long throw, but Green was already offside as he forced Jones to block his finish.
Downing broke well in the last minute, but the ball ran away from him just as he was about to pull the trigger.
Sub Flanaghan was booked for chopping down Rhead with one minute left of the 90.
As we then went into four minutes of stoppage time, Green almost caught Jones napping was an unexpected 30 yard thunderbolt, the keeper turning it away.
It was the final chance on an afternoon to remember with Liverpool fan Dempster quick to swap shirts with Suarez at the end and then applaud the Liverpool end.
It was a game that lived up to every hope and expectation apart from the result and firmly put the Stags back on the map.
Now they have to follow that up by restoring League football to the town and have belief that could be this season.
MANSFIELD TOWN: Marriott; Thompson, Dempster, Geohaghon, Beevers; Murray, Howell, Clements (Rhead 81); Briscoe (Daniel 64), Green, Meikle. Subs not used: Sutton, Speight, Wright, Hutchinson, Stevenson. LIVERPOOL: Jones, Sturridge (Suarez 55), Coates, Downing, Lucas, Carragher, Allen, Suso (Henderson 55), Shelvey, Wisdom (Flanaghan 80), Robinson. Subs not used: Sterling, Coady, Skrtel, Gulacsi. REFEREE: Andre Mariner of Birmingham.
ATTENDANCE: 7,574 (1,433 away).