The grass had looked greener for Liverpool in so many ways. A new Wigan pitch and a squad restored to full strength to play on it after this long, bleak winter of horse placenta treatments and inguinal hernias.
Then, an outcome which defied any explanation Rafael Benitez could throw at it afterwards: defeat for the first time in league football by Wigan on an evening when Fernando Torres spurned four fine opportunities. No wonder Benitez wore as depressed a countenance as at any time this season. "We had too many things that were wrong," he said, adding that there were "too many" to recount. "We have to show more character if we want to finish in the top four."
If Benitez really wanted to clutch at straws, he could point to Liverpool's record of having failed to win any of their last nine Monday night fixtures, though the seriousness of their predicament – failure to make next season's Champions League spells financial Armageddon for the club's owners and their debt repayment schedules – demands better explanations.
It was certainly one of those rare nights when nothing worked for Torres. The outside of the right post was the closest he came to burying any of the four good chances put his way. His worst miss – a skied, scissor-kick volley – came towards the end, closely followed by a booking for a wild on Emmerson Boyce he chased 20 yards to make. "Maybe Fernando needs more games but the team has to give him better chances," Benitez said. But there was cause and effect at work. Torres' night had much to do with the endeavour of Wigan – and Emmerson Boyce in particular – in silencing him.
The same went for so many other of Roberto Martinez's players – whose defeats of Chelsea and Manchester City here should have told Benitez something. In particular, James McCarthy, holding midfield at the age of 19 against his hero, Steven Gerrard, displayed the authority of a player many years his senior. "He has a massive, massive role in the squad and looks like a real experienced pro already," Martinez said of him.
None of Liverpool's players – save perhaps for Javier Mascherano, a utility right-back until substitute Glen Johnson made his first appearance since 28 December – showed the same. It was a particularly forgettable night for Gerrard, the fifth Liverpool booked, who seemed to make a V-sign at referee Andre Marriner when cautioned for a tackle on McCarthy in which – to be fair – he reached the ball. Liverpool rejected suggestions there was a gesture but the FA may investigate. Possession was Liverpool's in long periods but was often conceded and rarely converted into work for Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, who didn't have a save to make.
As Liverpool were stopped, Charles N'Zogbia was just getting started. The ordeal he submitted the Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua to in the first half showed the regalvanising effect Lancashire has had on him since the day he walked out of Newcastle. "Insomnia" was what his manager Joe Kinnear called him there. "Nightmare" more like, from the perspective of Insua as he was beaten three times in the first half by the 23-year-old.
Then Dirk Kuyt handed Wigan their goal, surrendering the ball to Boyce who gratefully accepted, crossed with the outside of his boot to Hugo Rodallega who deposited it into the net on the volley on 36 minutes. "It was new turf and a lot of people thought that [fact] would go in Liverpool's favour," said Martinez, whose topsy-turvy side stand four points clear of the relegation zone. "Too many people were starting to question the way we play."
The same goes for Liverpool, after the first of seven outstanding appointments with lower-table sides which they need to win for a top four finish. The next one is with Portsmouth next week, though ominously for Benitez, it is scheduled for Monday. "We can't guarantee anything if we don't show character," the manager said.
Wigan Athletic (4-2-3-1) Kirkland; Boyce, Caldwell, Bramble, Figueroa; Diame (Thomas, 82), McCarthy; N'Zogbia, Scharner, Rodallega (Scotland, 86); Moreno (Moses, 67). Substitutes not used: Stojkovic (gk), Amaya, Gomez, Sinclair.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1) Reina; Mascherano, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Insua; Rodriguez, Leiva (Johnson, 55), Gerrard, Benayoun (Aquilani, 69); Kuyt (Babel, 82); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Riera, Ngog.
Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).
Booked: Wigan Athletic Bramble; Liverpool Insua, Lucas, Kyrgiakos, Torres, Gerrard.
Man of the match: N'Zogbia.