In the bleak mid-season, another icy blast of reality for West Bromwich Albion. Battered 4-0 at Birmingham City in their previous outing, the Premiership's bottom side lost even more emphatically last night to a Liverpool team that had previously won only once on their travels.
John Arne Riise spearheaded the spree, scoring twice in a display that could have brought him a double hat-trick from left midfield. Also sharing in Liverpool's benefit night were Florent Sinama-Pongolle the Frenchman's first top-flight goal since last Boxing Day plus Steven Gerrard and Luis Garcia. Albion's gloom was deepened by the dismissal of Cosmin Contra at 1-0, Russell Hoult's ensuing penalty save from Milan Baros providing almost their only fillip in the 90 minutes.
Bryan Robson wore a shell-shocked expression similar to the one he presented after the derby drubbing at St Andrew's. "Everything was said after that game and I thought the lads had responded," the former Middlesbrough manager sighed. "But we're still conceding poor goals. Teams just aren't having to work hard enough to score against us. We need to iron out why that keeps happening."
His opposite number, Rafael Benitez, was clearly delighted to see Liverpool close in on the Champions' League places, all the more so since he was able to withdraw key players, notably Gerrard, to keep them fresh for the remainder of the "holiday" programme. "It's difficult to play against 10 men sometimes," the Spaniard said. "But we played the ball quickly and used the width of the pitch well. I was pleased with Riise. If you play wide, you have to get into the box. He certainly did that."
Contra's folly in handling a header by Antonio Nuñez which Hoult looked set to save did Albion no favours. In the end they were fortunate not to suffer a defeat at least on the scale of Liverpool's 6-0 success at The Hawthorns 18 months earlier. Indeed, such was the superiority of Benitez's side that they would not have been unduly flattered had they emulated Liverpool's 9-0 rout of Crystal Palace in 1989.
Riise put Liverpool ahead in the 17th minute, meeting a marvellous left-footed pass by Gerrard with a volley that Hoult touched but could not keep out. The Albion keeper kept his team in contention, at least theoretically, by parrying Baros' 39th-minute spot-kick following Contra's rush of blood, but the floodgates soon opened.
Sinama-Pongolle started the move for the second goal, finishing it by hooking in from Riise's 51st-minute cross. Gerrard helped himself to the third four minutes later, drilling a low shot through the defensive wall and in off a post after Dietmar Hamann rolled a free-kick to him 20 yards out.
Albion's misery was still not over. In the 81st minute, Riise powered in a stunning angled goal after a pass by Xabi Alonso, while Luis Garcia sidefooted in from close range with three minutes remaining. Almost inevitably, the player providing the cross was the ubiquitous Riise.
Goals: Riise (17) 0-1; Sinama-Pongolle (51) 0-2; Gerrard (55) 0-3; Riise (82) 0-4; Garcia (89) 0-5.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Hoult; Scimeca, Purse, Gaardsoe, Clement; Contra, Johnson (Gera, h-t), Greening, Koumas; Earnshaw (Hulse, 72), Horsfield. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Robinson, Dyer.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan (Warnock, 70), Hyypia, Carragher, Traoré; Nuñez, Hamann, Gerrard (Alonso, 63), Riise; Baros (Garcia, 66), Sinama-Pongolle. Substitutes not used: Harrison (gk), Diao.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).
Sent off: West Bromwich: Contra (39).
Man of the match: Riise.