Defiant Luton force Liverpool into replay

( AFP ) - Liverpool were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup third round as League One Luton rose above their status to give Rafa Benitez's side an almighty scare on Sunday.

Although Peter Crouch put Liverpool ahead late in the second half at Kenilworth Road, Luton snatched an equaliser through John Arne Riise's own goal.

A money-spinning replay at Anfield was the least Kevin Blackwell's team deserved for an heroic display and it can't come soon enough for a club teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Liverpool's inconsistent effort did nothing to erase the suspicion that they are drifting towards an anti-climatic campaign which could see the end of Benitez's reign.

Benitez awoke on Sunday to renewed reports that his fractured relationship with Liverpool's American owners is increasingly likely to lead to his departure at the end of the season.

But he was insistent after the match that he would love to stay Anfield.

"It's very clear. I love the club, I love the fans, I want to stay," he said.

"I have two more years on my contract and if I can stay for more will be really happy."

Benitez admitted his side had been below their best and said: "They worked hard but when you score a goal you have to use your experience. We conceded in three minutes and that was really disappointing.

"It was really difficult because the other team were very physical. But it is the FA Cup. Ask Everton, Bolton and Blackburn about it after they lost."

Blackwell added: "My team went out and did a job and made Liverpool look poor. We edged them in the chances and with a bit more guile we would have won the game quite comfortably."

The Spaniard's failure to mount a serious challenge for the title for a fourth successive year has already given owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett plenty of rope to hang him with, so he could hardly afford the indignity of an Cup embarrassment as well.

Benitez, who was already without injured captain Steven Gerrard, still felt confident enough to rest Fernando Torres and Jose Reina.

That belief looked well-founded in the first minute as Crouch's flick gave Ryan Babel the chance to surge past two defenders and bring a fine save from Dean Brill.

But despite only being paid two weeks wages in the last two months due to their dire financial plight, Luton's players have maintained a creditable commitment to the cause.

Their fervour would have earned Blackwell's side an early lead if Dave Edwards had kept his composure when he burst through on goal. Instead the midfielder shot too close to Charles Itandje and Calvin Andrew hooked the rebound over.

With England coach Fabio Capello watching from the stands, Crouch had a chance to underline his international credentials. The striker's astute flick gave Dirk Kuyt a clear sight of goal, only for the Dutchman to balloon his shot high and wide.

For Luton, Darren Currie's sublime pass picked out Drew Talbot and he raced clear of Sami Hyypia, cut back inside the defender before testing Itandje with a low cross-shot at the near post

Crouch combined with Kuyt to create two chances in quick succession but the England forward couldn't find the net on either occasion.

Liverpool eventually made the breakthrough in the 74th minute.

Andriy Voronin seized on a moment's hesitancy by Chris Perry and, although Brill blocked the Ukrainian's shot, Crouch was perfectly placed to tap the rebound into the empty net.

Luton could have crumbled but they rose to the challenge and levelled three minutes later.

Talbot whipped in a cross that flashed across goal towards Edwards. Riise got there first but succeeded only in diverting the ball into his own goal.

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