Gerrard provides impetus to awaken Liverpool challenge

Liverpool 3 Birmingham City 1
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In the alternative championship, the one conducted out of sight of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, this was a hugely significant victory. If last season Liverpool failed to reach the Champions' League because of results in the North East, where they lost all three games, their greatest obstacle to a return to Europe's élite this term has been their form at Anfield, where until yesterday they had won just twice.

The combination of what the Birmingham manager, Steve Bruce, described as "a very soft penalty" and two marvellously taken goals from Harry Kewell and Emile Heskey hauled Liverpool into the top six for the first time in two months. On Saturday they take on Newcastle, their chief rivals for the fourth Champions' League spot which, soberingly, is the only prize the Premiership can offer them. Had they lost, as seemed possible until a second-half revival orchestrated by Steven Gerrard, all the red half of Merseyside would have wanted for Christmas was Martin O'Neill.

Gerrard was the only member of this Liverpool side whom Gérard Houllier had no part in bringing to Anfield, although his decision to make him captain has raised the Englishman's game several notches. Certainly, Gerrard converted the penalty, awarded for what must have been the merest push on Florent Sinama-Pongolle by Kenny Cunningham, emphatically enough. Asked what he brought to the second half, Houllier replied simply, "Impetus".

"We were a bit ugly at times but I don't mind winning ugly if you score two good goals," Houllier said, although the goals were more than good. Kewell's was a diving header from a low, venomously driven cross from John Arne Riise. Heskey's scissors-kick was remarkable. It was a typical Heskey goal in that it came on the back of plenty of effort, was not scored against the highest class of opposition and it did not materially affect the result. It will, however, find an honoured place in the Liverpool end-of-season video.

It was created from a deep ball by Salif Diao, who was otherwise a wretchedly ineffectual stand-in at right-back, controlled by Heskey's chest and then crashed past Ian Bennett. "It's a quality he should deliver on a more regular basis," Houllier said. "He does that in training practically every week." Add in Vladimir Smicer's drive against the crossbar and Liverpool had put together the kind of surge they have frequently delivered in patches during individual games - which they have rarely won.

Defensively, which was the great strength of the team which finished second two seasons ago, Liverpool remain unconvincing. Sami Hyypia's dreadfully underhit back pass should have presented the overrated Christophe Dugarry with a clear shot at goal, had he not taken an age to bring it under control.

Robbie Savage produced only one decent free-kick on a sodden afternoon, but the one he did strike well in the 33rd minute drifted over every player in a red shirt and was clipped home by Mikael Forssell at the far post, which should have been guarded by Djimi Traoré.

Birmingham's early advances have become bogged down by a lack of goals and it was vital they nursed their lead for as long as possible. In fact, they held it for fewer than two minutes.

"To say it was a soft penalty was an understatement," Bruce said. "Do you think we would have got it at the Kop End? I doubt it. It was not helped by the antics of the striker [Sinama-Pongolle] who spent most of the match throwing himself around. He was on the floor more than he was on his feet."

Goals: Forssell (33) 0-1; Gerrard (35) 1-1; Kewell (69) 2-1; Heskey (78) 3-1.

Liverpool: (4-1-3-2) Kirkland 7; Diao 3, Biscan 5, Hyypia 5, Traoré 4; (Riise 6, 67), Hamann 6; Diouf 5 (Smicer 6, 55), Gerrard 8, Kewell 7; Sinama-Pongolle 5 (Murphy, 79), Heskey 7. Substitutes not used: Le Tallec, Dudek (gk).

Birmingham City: (4-4-2) Bennett 6; Johnson 5, Cunningham 5, Upson 4 (Tebily, 76), Clapham 6; Dunn 6, Savage 5, Clemence 5 (Morrison, 80), Lazaridis 6; Dugarry 3 (Kirovski, 80), Forssell 7. Substitutes not used: Cissé, Vaesen (gk).

Referee: N Barry (Scunthorpe) 3.

Bookings: Liverpool: Hamann. Birmingham: Johnson.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 42,683.