Liverpool 0 Birmingham City 0: Rafa's forward thinking fails to cure case of the Blues

Old shortcomings emerge again as Liverpool lose ground in title race
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The Independent Online

The weakness that has undermined Liverpool's championship aspirations for the last decade – an inability to break down teams carrying a packed and determined defence – loomed again at Anfield yesterday to inflict damage on their current campaign. It was back to the dog days of frustration.

Faced by a Birmingham City side who made no secret of their destructive intent and who allied it with a prodigious work-rate, Liverpool simply failed to deliver the win they needed to keep pace with the leaders Arsenal. This was their third draw in eight days and their second in successive Saturdays in the Premier League.

"We must keep in touch with the top," Steven Gerrard had written in the programme beforehand, but yesterday they rarely looked like achieving a win over a team they would confidently have expected to overcome. Birmingham camped behind a 4-1-4-1 formation, asked Liverpool to find a way through and thoroughly enjoyed themselves when their hosts failed.

Johan Djourou and Liam Ridgewell formed two rocks at the centre of the visitors' defence and Liverpool foundered on them. Where Rafael Benitez's team had looked like bona-fide title challengers when they destroyed Derby County 6-0 in their last home game, yesterday they endured an afternoon of impotence. "It was frustrating," Benitez said. "Birmingham worked hard. We tried to the end, but we didn't have the space or the ideas to break them down."

Asked why he had rested Fernando Torres, who did not appear until after an hour, he replied: "I have four strikers and I need to use all of them."

Steve Bruce, the Birmingham manager, was delighted with the result. "It's very sweet," he said. "We stuck to our game-plan, we worked hard and our goalkeeper had only one shot to save. And that came from our mistake."

Yesterday, Benitez chose to employ his third striking combination in as many matches, pairing Dirk Kuyt with Andriy Voronin, and the result was, to say the least, disappointing.

Jermaine Pennant, the former Birmingham player who was watched by Steve McClaren, showed sporadic bursts on both wings, but the closest Liverpool came to breaking through in the first half came after two minutes when Ryan Babel's clever pass pushed John Arne Riise beyond Stephen Kelly. The Norwegian drilled the ball across the goal, hoping to locate either the far corner or a charging colleague, but found neither.

Riise curled a shot just over after 15 minutes and Pennant shaved the bar with a shot four minutes before the interval, but by half-time the Kop was applauding tackles by Javier Mascherano rather than enjoying the surges of Gerrard.

The onus was on Liverpool to improve, but there was little sign of it until nearly the hour. Pennant's corner from the right was met on the volley by Gerrard, but his effort was cleared off the line by Mehdi Nafti.

Voronin also had Maik Taylor diving low to his left to tip a shot away, but it was indicative of the increasing tension that the cheer greeting the introduction of Torres was the loudest of the day. Ironically, the Spaniard's arrival also heralded Birmingham's most serious threat on goal when Olivier Kapo's free-kick deflected off the wall and had Reina scurrying across his line.

It was to prove Birmingham's closest effort, but Liverpool did little to suggest they would break the deadlock either. Torres scraped the bar with an overhead kick, but the closest they came in 90 minutes came when Torres and Crouch were bearing down on Taylor's goal only for Kelly to stretch out a boot to deny them six yards from the line. In that moment the entire 90 minutes was summed up.

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