Bruce points finger at referee
Liverpool 3 Wigan Athletic 2
As Steve Bruce was saying, like countless broken-hearted football men before him, there is defeat, travesty and something that makes the Italian Job resemble a casual piece of shoplifting. In the harsh circumstances of his team's late loss, after shaping the game just about utterly for more than an hour, it was probably inevitable that the Wigan manager exposed himself to the wrath of the Football Association disciplinary committee, for whom criticising a referee has long been roughly on a par with high treason.
Bruce plainly made an effort to measure his words but when you skimmed off the niceties you were still left with a devastating indictment of the referee.
Bruce said, "I've known Alan Wiley from my Birmingham days. I invited him to the club to go over the rules. I've got the highest regard for him but he got it wrong today – totally and utterly wrong. He has cost us the game. That's my opinion and I think everybody in the ground will understand it went in Liverpool's favour. There is no way on Earth we would have been beaten if we had had 11 men on the pitch with 10 minutes remaining.
"I can't say what I want to say because it would be a field day for you and I'm not going to get myself fined by the FA. I just thought all the little decisions in the second half went Liverpool's way. It's difficult enough coming to Anfield but you need a little bit of fairness and strength."
The second yellow card that removed the hugely influential Antonio Valencia for a rash tackle on Xabi Alonso was not what enraged Bruce. His anger was fuelled almost entirely by the first one which, television evidence confirms, was administered in stark error. Valencia was booked for rushing the free-kick over which Alonso had lingered but the Wigan player plainly moved forward only when the Spaniard touched the ball. With the one-man advantage, Liverpool's chances of equalising and then pushing for the three points made so vital to their momentum by the authority of a weakened Chelsea's victory at Middlesbrough earlier in the day, were of course hugely enhanced, especially with growing evidence, conceded by Bruce, that his inter-continental World Cup players were running perilously close to empty. There were some shrewd substitutions by Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. He discarded full-backs Andrea Dossena and Alvaro Arbeloa as Wigan fell deep and inserted the hard-running Nabil El Zhar and Yossi Benayoun.
Coupled with Valencia's exit, the effect was devastating for a Wigan team who had brilliantly controlled the first half and for whom the latest two goals from another inspired acquisition, the on-loan Egyptian Amr Zaki, certainly did not overstate either their confidence or their easy control of every area of the pitch.
Benitez conceded that he looks forward to a time when his team put him through a little less stress, but if Liverpool's performance was poor – and no kind of support to the idea that this is indeed the year when they challenge significantly the elite of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – it did contain a commitment and an energy which was little less than phenomenal.
The Anfield manager may not have shaped a team of smoothly marshalled composure on the ball, but there is no doubt that they will never run short of motivation. Dirk Kuyt remains the embodiment of such ambition to get the most out of what talent he has been given. While his partner Robbie Keane again seemed hugely overpriced at £18m, Kuyt once more dredged his soul in the effort to help his team.
In the absence of the injured Fernando Torres, the Dutchman also carried, for once, a genuine cutting edge as his goals, and one from Albert Riera delivered victory. Bruce agreed that his team would probably have had a sharply different look if Emile Heskey had returned from his heroic service for England in Minsk without injury but it was still hard to imagine a better realised performance. Wigan's only reward was the applause that must inevitably accompany any indication that lower echelon Premier League clubs are not necessarily obliged to equate Doomsday football with their best chance of avoiding relegation. Bruce fears the arrival of big-club "vultures" as such cut-price performers as Valencia, Wilson Palacios, Daniel de Ridder and, most spectacularly here, Zaki showed what can happen when ambition to achieve the football good life is married to exceptional talent.
"I can honestly say this is the best team I've ever had," said Bruce, "but I've got about six players – Valencia, Palacios, Heskey, [Chris] Kirkland, [Mario] Melchiot, De Ridder – who are bound to be looked at by bigger clubs. It's just something you have to put up with. What we're trying to do is really play with good quality players because if you can't play in the Premiership, in the end you are goosed."
For much of this match that fate seemed to belong to Liverpool. Their problem was that they couldn't begin to match Wigan's willingness to get on the ball and show their ability to develop an authentic – and menacing – pattern of play.
That this splendid approach went unrewarded had something to do with the ferocity of Liverpool's will and, clearly, a training regime which might have been borrowed from a superior Commando course. But then there was also that other reason, one that leaped out of any fair-minded review of the most influential incident in a match of unexpected character. Bruce tried to be diplomatic, but it's not his greatest strength. Finding real players, and making them play, is an entirely different matter.
Goals: Zaki (29) 0-1; Kuyt (37) 1-1; Zaki (45) 1-2; Riera (80) 2-2; Kuyt (85) 3-2.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1) : Reina; Dossena (El Zhar, 78), Agger, Carragher, Arbeloa (Benayoun, 79); Alonso, Gerrard, Pennant, Riera; Keane (Hyypia, 90); Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Lucas, Insua, Ngog.
Wigan (4-5-1) Kirkland; Melchiot, Scharner, Bramble, Figueroa; De Ridder (Kilbane, 79), Valencia, Cattermole, Palacios (Koumas, 90), Kapo (Brown, 82); Zaki. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Boyce, Taylor, Camara.
Booked: Liverpool Dossena; Wigan Valencia.
Sent off: Wigan Valencia (75).
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Man of the match: Zaki.
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