Liverpool 2 Cardiff 1
Robbie Fowler received a bear-hug from Rafael Benitez and a standing ovation from the Kop but he could do little to stop Steven Gerrard driving Liverpool into the Carling Cup quarter-finals.
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.
Fowler’s name echoed around the stadium before the start, and four minutes into the match he had a great chance to score.
Fabio Aurelio tripped the former England striker just outside the box in front of the Kop – and Fowler sent a curling free-kick towards the top corner. But French goalkeeper Charles Itandje flung himself to his left to claw it away.
Liverpool responded with efforts from Ryan Babel and Peter Crouch, before Aurelio produced a bending drive which Michael Oakes saw late but managed to turn around a post.
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 on the flanks.
Lucas should have done better with a six-yard line header from Alvaro Arbeloa’s cross, before another smart save from Itandje denied Parry a headed goal from Tony Capaldi’s 38th-minute cross.
Liverpool sprung into life when Gerrard, Babel and Crouch combined to set-up Leto, but his edge-of-the-box drive flashed wide.
After some probing from Gerrard and Babel, the hosts got their noses in front from an unlikely source.
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 with Itandje struggling.
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’s left hand.
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.
Liverpool were on top and Crouch forced Oakes into a good save with a close-range header following Babel’s cross.
Fowler found a yard in the box to turn Carragher and force Itandje into a reflex save.
Parry had done well on the right, growing in confidence, and Lucas was booked for bringing the winger down a foot outside the box.
With six minutes left, teenager Chris Gunter came on for McNaughton, before Parry saw a 10-yard drive blocked by Aurelio.
Babel was booked for encroaching at a free-kick as Cardiff threw men forward, but they could not force extra-time.