Johnson Kyrgiakos Carragher Insua
Maxi Lucas Gerrard Benayoun
Sigh. Every single time. Matches against Birmingham are miserably predictable. And the inability to keep a lead costs Liverpool yet again, for the second straight game no less.
The first half was unsurprisingly cagey. Birmingham defended well, while Liverpool’s midfield underwhelmed and the attack was too narrow, feeding into the home side’s game plan and strengths.
Liverpool were mainly limited to speculative shots from distance early on, none of which truly tested Hart. For all the possession, Liverpool – as usual – only looked dangerous when countering, and that’s where the first half’s lone chance came.
In the 35th minute, after Brum had kept the ball in the opposition’s end for more than a fleeting minute, Liverpool countered at pace through Kuyt, Gerrard, and Torres, with the striker’s right-sided cross finding Maxi. But Hart (who easily should be England’s #1) somehow kept out his volleyed shot, just tipping it onto the bar with his fingernails. That chance led into increased Birmingham pressure – your level of surprise at that depends on your level of pessimism – with an offside Jerome (somehow ruled on) stinging Reina’s palms and Insua subsequently having to clear a cross from the six-yard box around the 40th.
The opener had both a touch of good fortune and Gerrard at his irrepressible best. Less than two minutes after the restart, the captain’s corner made its way back to him after Johnson’s mishit shot found him open on the left. Working space by baffling Bowyer, he curled a lovely shot into the far corner. Simply brilliant, but also with the requisite luck in Johnson’s “assist.”
Yet less than 10 minutes later, Liverpool were back to square one completely of their own making. Partly sitting back, but with Birmingham clearly going for a quick equalizer, McFadden danced his way into space on the left and curled a cross for an absolutely unmarked Ridgewell, ghosting in behind both Johnson and Maxi, to tap in. Just embarrassing.
I reckon that Rafa will come under more criticism for the subsequent substitution that Liverpool’s marking will for the goal. In the 65th, in what had to be pre-planned, Torres came off for Ngog to what sounded like boos from both supporters and bewilderment from both Torres and Gerrard.
And while Liverpool upped their game, actually creating chances, nothing came. Three minutes after the change, Ngog headed Johnson’s cross inches wide of the near post. Converting that sure would have made the substitution look a lot smarter.
A minute later, Brum could have taken the lead, with Ridgewell crossing from Liverpool’s right only to see an open Bowyer completely mis-control at the back post, but from there, it was all the away side. ‘All the away side’ still couldn’t find the back of the net.
First, Ngog missed another great chance, shooting wide after good interplay between Kuyt and Maxi in the 73rd. In the last ten minutes, Maxi’s shot from Ngog’s cutback hit Aquilani in the six-yard box (came on for Kuyt in the 81st, while Babel replaced the anonymous Benayoun in the 71st), Gerrard’s curler from inside the D was inches high, and Maxi somehow volleyed over after Hart pushed Gerrard’s cross right to the midfielder. Babel’s shot into the side netting and Ngog unable to get good contact on Gerrard’s excellent ball over the top in injury time summed up the last half-hour adequately.
If we’re jumping to any conclusions from the Torres substitution, only two are applicable: Rafa is prioritizing the Europa League over the possibility of two more points here (see also: Masch and Agger left out) and that Torres still isn’t fully fit. But that’s “Grandmaster Benitez.” That Ngog missed three clear-cut chances, probably better than anything Liverpool had besides the goal and Maxi’s volley off the bar, makes it even harder to take. To be fair, Liverpool had two good chances while Torres was on and six or seven after, but still, you have to believe he would have tallied one of them.
Other than taking off Torres, Benitez “went for it.” In an away match! Liverpool lined up 4-4-2 with Lucas and Gerrard, a pairing present in 4-0 and 6-1 wins over Burnley and Hull respectively. But the midfield couldn’t impose itself, leading to mostly Route 1 passes in the first half, which Birmingham ate up. Benayoun’s deployment on the left led to increasingly narrow play (something Maxi’s also prone to) with the Israeli unable to make any impact. Both Babel and Aquilani were “positive” substitutions, but neither could add the needed final ball.
Birmingham continues to be my least-favorite bogey club, and results like these happen every single year. It’s just that Liverpool’s on such a slim razor’s edge to begin with that makes it so much worse.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that Liverpool could draw two games – this one and Chelsea – and still pip fourth if City and Spurs drop enough points. Both have tougher run-ins, and Spurs helped matters by surprisingly losing to Sunderland. This certainly sucks an incredible amount, but it didn’t decide fourth. However, Liverpool dearly needs a result against Chelsea, and combined those other results going Liverpool’s way, would probably mean that United win the league.
All I can say is Liverpool had better progress on Thursday after today's result.