Liverpool defender Brad Smith rode to the rescue of his manager Jurgen Klopp as his late strike earned the Premier League club a draw at Exeter and saved the blushes of his goalkeeper Adam Bogdan.
For so long it looked as though Exeter would progress in the Emirates FA Cup third round as Tom Nichols put the Grecians ahead early on before Lee Holmes saw his corner embarrass Bogdan and fly straight into the net on the stroke of half-time.
And for some time the League Two side, who last season went out in the first round against eighth-tier Warrington Town, dared to dream.
Exeter City 2-2 Liverpool
Emirates FA Cup
St James Park
Friday 8 January 2016
Winning sides receive £67,500 from The FA prize fund
In between Jerome Sinclair levelled for a much-changed Liverpool side, showing 11 changes, but with just over 15 minutes remaining Smith pounced for Klopp’s men.
Exeter started like an express train, taking advantage of Liverpool’s hugely inexperienced starting XI and it was the Grecians who struck the first blow.
Jamie Reid charged down the right flank before his low cross picked out Nichols to score his 10th goal of the season after only nine minutes.
Klopp would have feared the worst early on but Liverpool’s young side showed their potential as they levelled three minutes later.
Brad Smith had a shot cleared off the line before Sinclair, who made his debut for Liverpool three years ago aged just 16, pounced on a loose ball to fire the Premier League side level.
For all of their early indecision, Liverpool dominated the game after their equaliser with Joao Teixeira particularly prominent for the Merseyside club.
Klopp’s men went closest next as a well-worked set piece saw Connor Randall charge into the penalty box before shooting just wide.
Exeter, who the last time they reached the third round of the FA Cup earned a goalless draw at Old Trafford in 2005, refused to be bullied though and after 30 minutes Paul Tisdale’s men could have gone back in front but David Noble fired over from close range under intense pressure.
The Grecians had lost four matches in a row since their FA Cup second round victory against Port Vale and conceded 10 goals, but continued to pressure Liverpool and Christian Ribeiro was next to go close as he headed wide after a pinpoint cross from Lee Holmes.
And on the stroke of half-time Liverpool’s Bogdan was left red-faced as the goalkeeper failed to deal with a routine corner from Lee Holmes and saw the ball fly straight into his net.
Liverpool, who are unbeaten in 10 games in cup competitions this season in the League Cup and Europa League, were without a senior centre-back after Dejan Lovren and Kolo Toure were ruled out through injury and their inexperience at the back showed as they struggled to deal with direct balls into their own penalty area.
Key midfielder Philippe Coutinho was also ruled out for Liverpool as Klopp made an extraordinary 11 changes to a side already severely hampered by injury.
Exeter thought they should have had a penalty on 48 minutes as Ribeiro went down in the Liverpool penalty box but correctly the officials waved away his appeals.
And just three minutes later it looked certain striker Christian Benteke would level for Liverpool but somehow Exeter goalkeeper Robert Olejnik clawed his close range header over the crossbar.
As the action swung from end-to-end it was Exeter’s turn to go close next as Ribeiro again went close with a back post header on 58 minutes but he was frustrated as his effort flew narrowly wide under pressure.
Liverpool again showed mental strength as they dragged themselves level against the run of play on 73 minutes as Australian international defender Smith fired low into the net after Exeter failed to deal with a routine centre – and it was harsh on the Grecians.
Liverpool’s Sheyi Ojo thought he should have had a penalty with just over 10 minutes to play but referee Stuart Attwell waved away his appeals.
Despite late pressure Liverpool’s inexperienced back four held firm in the face of a late onslaught.
Exeter City (4-1-3-2): Bobby Olejnik; Christian Ribeiro, Troy Brown, Jordan Moore-Taylor, Craig Woodman; Jordan Tillson; Alex Nicholls, David Noble, Matt Holmes; Tom Nichols, Jamie Reid.
Substitutes: Matt Oakley for Noble 62, Arron Davies for Ribeiro 65, Joe Grant for Holmes 84.
Substitutes not used: Jamie McAllister, Clinton Morrison, Will Hoskins, James Hamon.
Goals: Nichols 9, Holmes 45.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Adam Bogdan; Connor Randall, Tiago Ilori, Jose Enrique, Brad Smith; Joao Teixeira, Kevin Stewart, Cameron Brannagan, Ryan Kent; Jerome Sinclair, Christian Benteke.
Substitutes: Pedro Chirivella for Kent 57, Sheyi Ojo for Sinclair 71, Joe Maguire for Ilori 76.
Substitutes not used: Adam Lallana, Lucas Leiva, Ryan Fulton, Conor Masterson
Goals: Sinclair 12, Smith 73.
Referee: Stuart Attwell.