Goals from Tom Nichols and Jerome Sinclair made the scoreline 1-1 after 12 minutes, but a dramatic goal directly from a corner by Lee Holmes gave Exeter the lead. It was left to Brad Smith to save the Anfield giants, equalising late in the day.
The match was a war of attrition for Liverpool as they battled to stay in the cup, and they rode their luck to earn a return fixture on Merseyside.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was forced to play a much weakened side after losing a host of stars to injury in recent weeks. Tiago Ilori, Kevin Stewart and Ryan Kent were all given debuts by the German after the trio were recalled from loans. Jose Enrique made his first appearance in a year in the starting XI, asked to play the unfamiliar role of centre-back.
Youngsters Connor Randall, Smith and Sinclair were also included in a hugely unfamiliar Liverpool side. Liverpool statistician Ged Rea highlighted the lack of games played by Klopp's selection, besides the experienced Enrique:
Ged Rea @ged0407
@LFC starting XI tonight has a total of 135 appearances for the club. @Jesanchez3 has 96 of those.2016-1-8 19:05:36
Ged Rea @ged0407
8 of the @LFC squad this evening are 19 years old and under, with only 3 players being over the age of 22.2016-1-8 19:24:27
Christian Ribeiro and David Noble returned for Exeter as Arron Davies and Joel Grant dropped to the bench after the defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge in the league.
Liverpool appeared in control in the early minutes as they hunted for a goal, but they were counter-punched by Exeter as the hosts took the lead.
Josh Read sprinted down the right flank for the Grecians, and Nichols met his cross, expertly sliding the ball past helpless goalkeeper Adam Bogdan.
Bleacher Report UK highlighted the strike as the Exeter supporters went wild in the stands:
Bleacher Report UK @br_uk
Fourth-tier Exeter are beating Liverpool (albeit, a very inexperienced Liverpool). https://t.co/ZfPCRhPG4W2016-1-8 20:07:09
However, the crowd were soon silenced, as Liverpool immediately struck back to level the scoreline. Christian Benteke poked the ball away from his marker, inadvertently directing the ball to Sinclair, who finished with style and composure.
BT Sport shared the strike and finish that got the Reds back in the game:
BT Sport Football @btsportfootball
"That didn't take long!" @JSinclair_48's first senior goal draws @LFC level against @OfficialECFC. #EmiratesFACup https://t.co/rLuXMaP3KO2016-1-8 20:18:33
OptaJoe highlighted how quickly Klopp's young team responded after going behind:
3:36 - There was just three minutes and 36 seconds between Exeter's opener and Liverpool's equaliser tonight. Response.2016-1-8 20:13:17
The Exeter fans were soon back in full voice as the ground rocked under the noise, but Liverpool continued to probe as they looked for the lead.
The Reds were in charge in the midfield and attack but could not test the Exeter back line with gusto or regularity. Liverpool had joy down the flanks as their opponents squeezed narrow, but Klopp's side failed to capitalise.
As the clock ticked down to the half-time whistle, Exeter earned a late corner, and the hosts produced a truly special cup moment.
Holmes whipped in a wicked set piece from the resulting corner under Bogdan's crossbar, and the Reds keeper missed his punch, allowing the ball to hit the back of the net.
The stadium once again exploded with emotion, as Exeter took the shock half-time lead.
Footballer Anthony Gerrard—cousin of Reds legend Steven Gerrard—gave his thoughts during the break.
Anthony Gerrard @antgerrard86
Liverpool need to play the conditions and not Exeter, when it like this. And delivery out wide needs to be better from them Reds2016-1-8 20:59:29
The Telegraph's Jason Burt also gave his assessment, noting Klopp sent his men back out onto the pitch early:
Jason Burt @JBurtTelegraph
Fantastic cup tie here at Exeter where the League 2 side deservedly lead 2-1 at half-time. Great atmosphere.2016-1-8 20:47:29
Jason Burt @JBurtTelegraph
Liverpool out very, very early for the second half. I think they've had a talking to..2016-1-8 20:58:21
The hosts started positively in the second half as they searched for a third strike. However, Liverpool quickly counter-attacked as Benteke headed a cross for a certain goal. But Exeter goalkeeper Robert Olejnik made a world-class save to scoop the ball over his crossbar.
After the hour mark, it was Exeter that were clearly on top, as Liverpool sunk into a depression. The visitors were not coping with their fourth-tier opposition's movement, and it looked like the Grecians would score again.
Bleacher Report contributor Chris Williams had harsh words for Klopp's side:
Chris Williams @Chris78Williams
Dress it up all you want but Liverpool's U21 contingent should be better than League 2 players.2016-1-8 21:16:50
Exeter continued to flow forward as Liverpool were overran by the League Two side. The pitch conditions were certainly not helping the Reds—cutting up under feet—but the Premier League team were being beaten for desire and work rate.
Klopp made a tactical substitution, bringing on Oluwaseyi Ojo for Sinclair, and the winger had an immediate impact. The attacker burst down the left, and his rebounded cross fell to Smith, who lashed his shot home against the run of play.
The 2-2 scoreline flattered Liverpool, who had failed to exert their class in the match, but Klopp's team suddenly had new vigour about their movement and intent.
The visitors had a big shout for a penalty turned down as Ojo was tackled in the area, and the traffic flow had suddenly reversed direction as the Reds looked hungry for the win in the final 10 minutes.
However, Liverpool couldn't steal the goal they desired, as Exeter earned an exciting replay at one of the temples of football.
The lower division side had done themselves proud and thoroughly deserved the 2-2 draw, despite late Liverpool resistance. Klopp will be relieved his first FA Cup tie didn't end in defeat, but his side hung on until late in the game, denying the upset.
Klopp was relieved to escape the Exeter match with a draw, and said his team struggled with a lack of preparation due to injuries, per LFCTV (h/t the club's official Twitter feed):
Liverpool FC @LFC
Jürgen Klopp gives his assessment of tonight's 2-2 draw with @OfficialECFC... https://t.co/1fI3hfIUfd2016-1-8 22:15:50
Klopp also explained the composition of the Reds' roster, according to James Carroll of the club's official website:
“We tried to create a line-up under time pressure – [some loan players] came back yesterday and we trained together yesterday and this morning for around 40 minutes.
“We tried to create a common plan and idea. It was not too good, it was not too bad, but it showed that in football it’s very important you work together and train together and we couldn’t do that with this team."
The replay date is yet to be confirmed, but will take place at Anfield during a hectic January schedule for Klopp and Liverpool.
"We have to respect our situation and that’s what we did," Klopp added, per Carroll. "We were here to go through to the next round. It didn’t work out 100 per cent – 50 per cent – so now we have another game at Anfield."