Birmingham trembled on the brink of Premier League salvation yesterday before a collective loss of nerve saw them surrender a 2-0 lead as Liverpool – or rather, Liverpool reserves – scored twice in the space of 13 minutes to keep the home side in the relegation places.
Having apparently taken control of the game on the hour with goals either side of half-time from Mikael Forssell and Seb Larsson, the Blues allowed a visiting side who included nine changes from the team who drew with Chelsea in their midweek Champions' League match to pull a goal back in the 63rd minute through Peter Crouch before Yossi Benayoun headed a 76th-minute equaliser that took a big deflection off Birmingham's Radhi Jaidi.
While Liverpool's fourth place, and guaranteed Champions' League involvement next season, looks increasingly secure as they look ahead to Wednesday's semi-final second leg at Stamford Bridge, Birmingham now face a crucial visit to the side one place below them, Fulham, before completing their programme with a difficult task at home to Blackburn.
Birmingham's manager, Alex McLeish, who had brandished his fist in triumph after Larsson had put his team two up with a sublimely struck free-kick in the 55th minute, looked deflated after a finish in which Liverpool had repeatedly threatened to score a winner. "I was very disap-pointed," McLeish said. "I think if, before the game, you had given us a draw against Liverpool we might just have taken it. But having gone ahead with two cracking goals, we should have done better." He was particularly aggrieved at the manner in which his men allowed former Blue Jermaine Pennant to cut in from the right past two or three challenges before giving Andriy Voronin the chance to set up an unmarked Crouch to pull the first goal back with a low drive.
"Our players were very naïve," said McLeish. "They dived in a bit, and went to ground. After they equalised we ran out of steam. We knew that it could have been a fantastic result, but we got a point, and that point could still keep us in the PremierLeague."
Liverpool's manager, Rafael Benitez, looked happy after a game which did not present him with any fresh injury problems. "I was really pleased with our second half," he said. "We scored twice and we might have had more. The idea was to make sure of fourth place, but a draw was always an option. I don't think this affects Wednesday – that is a different competition."
McLeish fielded three changes from the side who lost 5-1 at Aston Villa, with Larsson returning after injury along with Olivier Kapo and Forssell being recalled to the forward line.
The Scotsman has persevered with the determination that marked his playing career amid the unsettling circumstances backstage that have seen the managing director, Karren Brady, and co-owner David Sullivan questioned by City of London Police on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting before being released on bail.
He will doubtless have been thankful for the steadying comment issued by Sullivan yesterday that he would retain the managership even if Birmingham were to go down. By way of pre-match inspiration, McLeish offered his players the hopeful parallel of Bolton, who recordedback-to-back wins this season after a similarly heavy defeat at Villa Park. That aspiration began to look realistic with 11 minutes of the first half remaining as James McFadden's cross from the right carried to an unmarked Forssell at the far post, and the former Chelsea striker controlled the ball on his chest before driving home an opening goal.
The St Andrew's faithful, who were perked up by a pre-match parade of former players, including such well-loved figures as Noel Blake and Bob Hatton, began to sense the possibility of a famous victory, and when Larsson guided home his free-kick after McFadden's break had been clumsily halted by Liverpool's Martin Skrtel, the mood became celebratory. Prematurely.
McLeish is now focusing on the visit to Fulham, whose own hopes will have been revived by their dramatic victory at Manchester City. He insisted defeat was a possibility, before adding grimly: "We are determined that it won't happen."Reuse content