Michael Owen was a constant threat as Glenn Hoddle, the England coach, would have noted and Blackburn's defence was often a matter of desperation rather than science. But, in truth, both lost the chance to cash in on Manchester United's uncharacteristic slip at home. To add to Liverpool's woe, Steve McManaman was substituted at half-time with a hamstring injury and Jason McAteer was stretchered-off early in the second half.
"A big game of football," Roy Evans, the Liverpool manager, said without exaggeration, one of those games that can decide the destinies of seasons, even without the bonus of a place in the Champions League. It was a predictably taut afternoon, anticipated by the choice of the combative Jamie Carragher ahead of the gifted but erratic Patrik Berger to replace the injured Jamie Redknapp. Blackburn were without the suspended Gary Flitcroft and the inclusion of Gary Croft instead of the in-form Damien Duff suggested that Roy Hodgson was not prepared to gamble much either. The announcement of two England squads tomorrow for the senior and B internationals against Chile lent added snap to the occasion.
Owen, Robbie Fowler, Paul Ince, McManaman and Chris Sutton were doubtless the names pencilled in to Hoddle's notebook. Sherwood's might be there too after a typically workmanlike, accomplished performance from the underrated Blackburn captain. No surprise to Kenny Dalglish, his former manager, watching from the stand. Liverpool bear little resemblance to the hesitant side which trailed so disconsolately through the pre-Christmas period. The improvement has begun at the back where the return of Phil Babb alongside Dominic Matteo has lent stability, even to James's notoriously jittery hands.
McManaman too is a revelation, back to his Scarlet Pimpernel best. Blackburn sought him here, there and everywhere until a sore left hamstring, which required treatment in the first half, ended his twinkling afternoon at half-time. If that is McManaman hamstrung, Blackburn must have wondered, what price catching him at full tilt?
All Liverpool's best moments in the first half stemmed from McManaman's skittish dribbles, from his ability not just to dribble at pace but to time his pass to perfection. Time and again, Owen and Fowler tested Hendry's agility, bursting from deep on to McManaman's lasered passes.
Twice in three minutes Liverpool could have gone ahead, the first after McManaman had wrong-footed the whole Blackburn defence with a pass on the move to Owen. Only a desperate block by the excellent Stephan Henchoz saved the day. Moments later, Ince, released by McManaman, fed Fowler but Flowers was able to stretch and turn the ball away as Blackburn's composure came under the severest pressure.
When Blackburn's response came it was confined to a hooked volley by Gallacher, saved at full reach by James, some typically robust front-running from Sutton and the odd foray forward by Sherwood. McManaman's replacement by Berger at half-time heartened Blackburn and unsettled Liverpool. Oyvind Leonhardsen moved to the right; Berger, minus ponytail, moved into left midfield.
Yet, perversely, the new system brought almost instant results. Fowler shot on the turn, Flowers parried and Leonhardsen's shot from an acute angle was brilliantly blocked by the flying body of Hendry. The Norwegian international could barely believe his luck. Nor could Blackburn. Liverpool's rhythm was further disrupted by an injury to McAteer, stretchered off with his left leg in a splint after an innocuous tustle with Gallacher. But a left-foot shot by Leonhardsen hit the bar and Owen, elusive as ever, had a shot on the turn well saved as Blackburn struggled to return to their own neat ways.
A long period of pressure in front of the Kop ended with Fowler wasting an excellent chance. The build-up was quick and incisive, but the Liverpool striker dragged his final shot wide of the left-hand post when he only had Flowers to beat. It was the sort of chance he would usually bury in his sleep, but this has so far not been a vintage season for him. The Kop, never bad judges, sensed a critical moment in the season; for Blackburn, the final quarter was a true test of character. Owen went close again, Liverpool pressed hard, but Blackburn hung on desperately.Reuse content