Liverpool staged a stirring late comeback to strike twice in the closing minutes to beat Bolton Wanderers just as the Championship side threatened the latest FA Cup shock.
Eidur Gudjohnsen’s contentious penalty just before the hour gave Bolton a lead they were clinging on to with increasing desperation in the concluding moments – especially after Neil Danns was sent off for a second yellow card.
Raheem Sterling broke Bolton’s resistance with a cool finish in the 86th minute before, with extra time looming, Philippe Coutinho curled a magnificent winner into the top corner to give Liverpool a fifth-round tie at Crystal Palace.
Bolton were out on their feet with that numerical disadvantage near the end and simply could not survive a Liverpool siege, with Jordan Henderson and Emre Can striking the woodwork before Sterling made the crucial breakthrough.
This was a real scare for Brendan Rodgers’ side but they will be relieved to advance after an FA Cup fourth round that claimed giants such as Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham.
It keeps Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, making his 700th appearance for the club, on course for that Wembley appearance on his 35th birthday on May 30 before he leaves the club for LA Galaxy.
The real hero was diminutive Brazilian Coutinho, who celebrated signing a new deal to keep him at Liverpool until 2020 with a sensational winner to provide the decisive moment in a fiercely fought tie.
Gerrard returned to the side to reach that landmark, making him only the third Liverpool player to play 700 games. He is third on the club’s all-time list behind Ian Callaghan, who made 857 appearances, and Jamie Carragher on 737.
And he was the first to raise the alarm for Bolton with a shot that brought a smart save from Andrew Lonergan, who also did well to save from Sterling.
Bolton’s best chance looked to be exploiting Liverpool’s occasional frailty at set pieces and it almost worked when Liam Feeney’s free-kick found David Wheater, but he could only direct his header straight at Simon Mignolet.
Liverpool were still working the openings, however, with Sterling hitting the outside of the post after taking his time in the area and the influential Coutinho firing inches off target seconds before the break.
Sterling was the big danger to Bolton and it needed a brilliant recovery tackle from Dorian Dervite to stop him as he raced through, but Liverpool’s man in form was still quick enough to regain his balance and bring a flying save from Lonergan.
The game took a dramatic twist on the hour when Bolton were awarded a penalty as Martin Skrtel tangled with Zach Clough. Contact appeared minimal but Skrtel paid the price for making a poor decision in that position.
Gudjohnsen slotted the penalty in with complete calm to the huge delight of Bolton’s fans, who were suddenly sensing another FA Cup upset.
Bolton were inevitably going to come under severe pressure and Danns made the situation even more difficult with a senseless lunge at Joe Allen that was only ever going to bring a second yellow card.
Gudjohnsen then spurned a glorious opportunity to seal victory for Bolton as he directed a free header straight at Mignolet.
As Liverpool’s urgency increased, Rodgers introduced Daniel Sturridge as his third and final substitute with 20 minutes left – but it was another replacement, Henderson, who almost brought them level with a shot that deflected off a Bolton defender on to the post.
Lonergan had distinguished himself as the replacement for Adam Bogdan and did so again with seven minutes left as he turned Can’s rising shot on to the bar.
Bolton were struggling to keep Liverpool at bay and the leveller finally came when Can’s perfect pass picked out Sterling, who demonstrated great composure with a low first-time finish.
The home side wilted visibly and were not even able to hang on for extra time as Coutinho settled matters with that outstanding 20-yard strike, curled past Lonergan into the top corner from 20 yards.