Blackburn Rovers 1 Liverpool 0: McCarthy punishes wayward Liverpool

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The Independent Football

Like an infant who refuses to accept the end of Christmas, Liverpool began Boxing Day daring to believe they could still play a part in a two-horse pursuit of the title. Enthused by seven league games without defeat, the rise to third and a defence that last conceded a Premiership goal when the name-plate on the manager's desk at Charlton read Iain Dowie, their support at Ewood Park acclaimed the late stalemate at Stamford Bridge as though it had revived a challenge that even Steven Gerrard recently declared was not beyond the remarkable powers of Rafael Benitez.

Then they felt the incision of reality once more. Champions-elect do not lose six away games before the mistletoe has been taken down, nor can they hope to disturb the duel of Manchester United and Chelsea when their strikers squander so many invitations whenever they set foot outside of Anfield.

For all the spirit Blackburn displayed to recover from Saturday's mauling at the Emirates Stadium, the magnificence of Brad Friedel and the predatory skills of Benni McCarthy to beat Jose Reina for the first time in 11 hours and 29 minutes of Premiership football, Liverpool's slide out of the Champions' League places yesterday owed everything to familiar failings.

"This is something we have seen too many times this season," admitted Benitez. "We have a lot of clear chances, we miss them, we make a mistake and concede a goal. I have said this before, but when you create so much and don't score, what can you do?"

The Liverpool manager had every reason for such resignation. Reverting to the 3-5-2 strategy that had brokered Liverpool's first Premiership away win at Wigan this month he would have returned to the dressing room at half-time with a lead equally as emphatic as at the JJB Stadium but for three unconvincing headers from Peter Crouch.

Crouch was preferred in attack to Dirk Kuyt for his first league start since November and while inactivity offered an excuse for his first squandered opportunity in the opening minute, a header straight at Friedel following an excellent run and cross from Craig Bellamy, the case for his defence was severely weakened by subsequent misses that suggested confidence has dwindled on the substitutes' bench.

"He does not lack confidence," insisted Benitez, who reiterated his intention to resist any approaches for the £7m striker during the transfer window. "It could have been bad luck or good goalkeeping. We were creating chances for him, we needed his strength against a physical team and the only thing missing was his finishing."

In the 19th minute Steve Finnan prospered against Liverpool target Lucas Neill, not for the first time, and delivered a cross that the unmarked England striker steered tamely at Friedel from the penalty spot.

Nine minutes before the break, and from another Finnan invitation, Crouch did force the American keeper into a telling save, but it was a despondent centre-forward who discovered his number was up in lights as early as the 57th minute.

Crouch was not solely responsible for Blackburn's clean sheet as Bellamy failed to convert twice from close range and Mark Gonzalez produced a dreadful pass behind the former Rovers striker on the break before McCarthy pounced, but it was undisputable that Liverpool's threat improved immeasurably once Kuyt entered the fray.

By then, however, the visitors were playing catch-up, Blackburn ahead through an exquisite attack in which Tugay out-foxed Steven Gerrard and slipped an immaculate pass for Morten Gamst Pedersen to cross for the South African's 10th goal of the campaign.

Thereafter the siege on Friedel's goal resumed with renewed intensity, yet the veteran in the Blackburn goal responded in kind. At close range he foiled the substitutes, Kuyt and Luis Garcia, then tipped away a goalbound drive from Xabi Alonso from 30 yards that, coming moments after the Spaniard had struck the outside of a post from 20 yards, consigned the midfielder to visible despair.

Nothing, not even the incredulous decision to give the official man of the match award to Tugay, could upset Friedel on this afternoon.

Goal: McCarthy (49) 1-0.

Blackburn Rovers (4-4-2): Friedel; Emerton, Todd, Ooijer, Neill; Bentley (Mokoena, 87), Savage, Tugay (Henchoz, 90), Pedersen; Nonda (Derbyshire, 78), McCarthy. Substitutes not used: Brown (gk), Gray.

Liverpool (3-5-2): Reina; Carragher, Hyypia, Agger; Finnan, Alonso, Gerrard, Gonzalez (Aurelio, 64), Riise; Crouch (Kuyt, 57 mins), Bellamy (Garcia, 76). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Pennant.

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire)

Booked: Blackburn: Pedersen. Liverpool: Agger, Alonso.

Man of the match: Friedel.

Attendance: 29,342.