Liverpool has finally started its year as European Capital of Culture and Rafael Benitez is keen that his team should play their part. "It is important for us as ambassadors for the city to stay involved in big international games," he said in his notes for a crowd which heard Ringo Starr's new culture year anthem at half-time. The city's most European asset Benitez's side might be, but culture rarely came into the equation last night as they slipped out of the top four and provided haunting evidence that their title aspirations will probably not last the winter.
On the balance of things, Liverpool probably deserved the points which the insatiable goalscoring instincts of Fernando Torres seemed to have brought them when he slotted in his 16th goal of the season early in the second half. But Benitez's glum face said it all at the final whistle even though he would not concede that the title is already out of reach after an improbable 18-yard goal from the right foot of Titus Bramble which saw the Spaniard's side leave the field to a chorus of boos.
"It's clear the gap [with Arsenal] is bigger but I've said before it's a long race, you need to think about one game at a time," Benitez said, after Manchester City had leapfrogged his side into fourth place. "If you think about the difference it's more pressure."
But after Sunday's equally lacklustre performance at Eastlands, despair is becoming increasingly hard to dispel and it is hard to see how Liverpool might conceivably make good the 12-point gap which now exists between them and Arsenal. The numbers tell it best: Liverpool have taken 17 out of a possible 30 points at home, while Manchester United and Arsenal have collected 31 from 33.
The look on Steve Bruce's face could hardly have differed more. Benitez has not mustered a single win against Bruce's sides in 21 attempts now and the point which finally lifted Wigan out of the bottom three is all the more remarkable considering they have faced five top 10 teams under Bruce. "Secrets?" he said, pondering what it takes to match Benitez. "The discipline was spot on. You need a bit of bollocks out when you come to Liverpool."
That was certainly provided by the defending of Bramble a player Bruce believes has received "some unfair treatment over the past few years" but who has found new confidence following the general derision which followed Newcastle's signing of him six years ago for 5m. "He's played centre-half for a team that finished fourth twice," Bruce said of Bramble's Newcastle years. "You can see [him] emerging as a really good player."
But another odd team formation from Benitez, who played Steven Gerrard in a no-man's-land behind Torres, provided another Brucie bonus. "We were trying to play wingers wide, spread out the team and get Gerrard into the box," said the Spaniard, possibly the only manager of a top five team who feels the need to play just one striker when a bottom three team is in town.
As a result, Liverpool's approach play did little to make this anything but an Arctic night even if the decision to play the Eagles' "Hotel California" before kick-off was someone's idea of a good joke. Twenty or more passes went astray in the first half Harry Kewell was a serial offender, with Javier Mascherano and even Xabi Alonso in sorry pursuit to the frequent dismay of an Anfield crowd which knows that putting away teams like Wigan is a prerequisite of a title challenge.
Kewell, in particular, seemed to need more time on the ball than the situation allowed and, though Benitez has finally provided him with his chances, he will need to offer more if his future here is to continue beyond the season.
It was Steve Finnan, playing a more advanced role in the second half behind Kewell, who carved out the goal Liverpool needed on 49 minutes. Gerrard played a short ball to him down the right flank and his sharp first-time pass inside allowed Torres to race a yard clear of Bramble, for once, and tuck the ball inside Chris Kirkland's left-hand post.
But Bramble, Kirkland and Mario Melchiot, who will also have enjoyed this night, conspired to prevent Liverpool from extending the lead when it seemed they might. A thumping 30-yard Gerrard free-kick was stopped by Kirkland on the hour and heaved from in front of him by Bramble, as Mascherano advanced.
It was when an equaliser seemed most likely that some dubious defending helped Wigan unexpectedly back into the game. A lofted free-kick by Denny Landzaat, headed down by Heskey, was only half cleared by Gerrard on 78 minutes and fell straight at the feet of Bramble, who unleashed his shot past Pepe Reina.
Benitez made his usual desperate ploy of throwing on Peter Crouch late in the game but there was a desperation in the way things finished for his side. Kirkland stopped another thumping, 30-yard Gerrard shot seven minutes from time and put his body in the way after indecision in the Wigan box allowed the Liverpool captain to race in and thump a second shot from the rebound.
"Attack, attack, attack" the home fans demanded but there was just no way through. The same might be said of the route to a Premier League challenge, come May.
Goals: Torres (49) 1-0; Bramble (80) 1-1.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; Finnan, Arbeloa, Carragher, Aurelio; Pennant (Kuyt, 86), Mascherano (Crouch, 85), Alonso, Kewell (Benayoun, 74); Gerrard; Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Riise.
Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Melchiot, Scharner, Bramble, Kilbane; Valencia, Brown, Landzaat, Taylor (Koumas, 79); Bent, Heskey (Sibierski, 84). Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Boyce, Olembe.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Liverpool Mascherano, Torres; Wigan Scharner.
Man of the match: Bramble.
Attendance 42,308.Reuse content