There was to be no magic homecoming for 32-year-old Fowler, a legend at Anfield after blasting 183 goals in a tremendous 369-game Liverpool career.
Cardiff did all they could. They battled bard, forced an equaliser through skipper Darren Purse and were pounding away at Liverpool to the death. But Gerrard was the difference, with a typical surging run and shot producing the winner after Purse had levelled following a long-range goal from reserve midfielder Nabil El Zhar.
Liverpool started this tie with only Gerrard and Jamie Carragher from the side who kicked off against Arsenal at the weekend. Teenager Jack Hobbs made his full debut at centre-back, with youngsters Lucas and Sebastian Leto getting run-outs. Harry Kewell was on the bench, his first involvement with the senior side since last season’s Champions League final.
Cardiff, roared on by more than 6,000 fans at the Anfield Road end, held their own and defended well while trying to get Joe Ledley and Paul Parry into dangerous positions.
After some probing from Gerrard and Babel, the hosts got their noses in front. No Cardiff player moved towards French-born midfielder El Zhar when he picked the ball up 25 yards out, so he unleashed a fierce, swerving effort which flew past Oakes.
Cardiff needed to get their veteran strikers into action, and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink took a Fowler pass on the left before lifting a cross-shot fractionally over the bar.
Ledley took the ball into the box and found space with a clever change of feet, before seeing a low drive turned away by Itandje in the 62nd minute.
Yossi Benayoun replaced Leto a minute later, but two minutes later Cardiff were level. Parry swung in a bending free-kick from the right and Purse rose to plant a strong downward header from 12 yards past Itandje.
Cardiff’s hordes were in dreamland, but the lead lasted just 46 seconds.
Benayoun raced through on the left and laid the ball into Gerrard’s path, and he drilled the ball home from 15 yards.
Kewell came on for El Zhar with 20 minutes to go, to a rousing welcome from the Kop – and Cardiff responded by sending on Steven Thompson for the tiring Hasselbaink.
Fowler found a yard in the box to turn Carragher and force Itandje into a reflex save.
With six minutes left, teenager Chris Gunter came on for McNaughton, before Parry saw a 10-yard drive blocked by Aurelio.
Itandje, Arbeloa, Hobbs, Carragher, Aurelio, El Zhar (Kewell 71), Lucas (Mascherano 87), Gerrard, Leto (Benayoun 63), Crouch, Babel.
Oakes, McNaughton (Gunther 84), Purse, Johnson, Capaldi, Ledley, Rae, McPhail (Whittington 89), Parry, Fowler, Hasselbaink (Thompson 75).
P Walton (Northamptonshire).