Liverpool make perfect punchbags for Heskey's revenge

Birmingham City 2 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online

During his time as a Liverpool player, Emile Heskey was often accused of failing to punch his weight. There was nothing gentle about the punishment the giant meted out to Rafael Benitez's team on Birmingham City's behalf, his softer side resurfacing only when he was invited to comment on his former club's impoverished display.

During his time as a Liverpool player, Emile Heskey was often accused of failing to punch his weight. There was nothing gentle about the punishment the giant meted out to Rafael Benitez's team on Birmingham City's behalf, his softer side resurfacing only when he was invited to comment on his former club's impoverished display.

In the nearby media room, several other ex-Liverpool players, veterans of the Dalglish and Paisley eras who now work as radio summarisers, were shaking their heads in disbelief over a performance that did not muster a genuine scoring opportunity until the final minute. The striker formerly known as "Bruno" politely preferred to accentuate the positives in Birmingham's surprisingly comfortable victory.

"If you give Liverpool room to pass the ball, they can destroy any team, and we never allowed them that time," Heskey said. "But I hope they get fourth place and I think they will."

Birmingham did, indeed, deserve credit for a show that Steve Bruce, the City mananger, rated as good as any they have put on in the two-and-a-half years since promotion. However, it was shocking to see Liverpool bereft of imagination, spirit, cohesion and penetration, especially with the home leg of their Champions' League tie against Bayer Leverkusen looming a week tomorrow.

Benitez conceded Liverpool had "played a very bad game". Jerzy Dudek, the goalkeeper, spoke of "a very big anger in the team". That at least indicated that the players cared, something that was not always evident. Alan Hansen claimed that Liverpool's defeat at Southampton last month was the worst he had seen his old club play in the 14 years since he retired. Those who witnessed both fixtures ranked the surrender at St Andrew's a close second.

What must make it all the more perplexing for Benitez, a decent man who had a good pedigree in Spain, is that Liverpool had won three in a row after the defeat on the South Coast and went into Saturday's match with the incentive of closing to within two points of Everton in fourth place.

Birmingham, moreover, should have been there for the taking. Without a clean sheet in the Premiership since Boxing Day, and with five defeats in six League games this year, they were also integrating new personnel. Yet Liverpool started with a system that had Dietmar Hamann and Igor Biscan duplicating functions, Fernando Morientes looking forlorn as a lone frontrunner and Milan Baros as out of place in a wide-right role as Andy Johnson had been for England.

Even when Birmingham had to bring on Olivier Tébily, who was almost risibly error-prone, Liverpool could not take advantage. Their one creative spark, Steven Gerrard, became ever more sullen, despite Benitez tweaking his formation to a more suitable 4-4-2 in the second half. In Sami Hyypia they also had a defender struggling conspicuously. The difference was that Heskey, with his non-stop aggression, worked voraciously to exploit his old captain's uncertainty.

Hyypia was so badly out of position as he and Heskey watched Kenny Cunningham's route-one pass come down that he had to grab the home player, who was quick to go down. Walter "The Rifle" Pandiani, whom Bruce has borrowed from Deportivo la Coruña, scored from the spot. Another of Birmingham's recent loan recruits, Jermaine Pennant, soon crossed for his fellow winger Julian Gray to volley the second goal.

On this form, operating as a conventional centre-forward with good service from the flanks, Heskey merits a recall to the England squad. As Bruce argued, he offers a more muscular option to the small, darting forwards of which Sven Goran Eriksson has a surfeit. His understanding with Pandiani, on their first outing together, highlighted his flexibility; the Uruguayan speaks no English.

"We did it with sign language," explained a beaming Heskey. For the club that deemed him a heavyweight who never quite landed enough knock-out blows, the signs continue to be worryingly inconsistent.

Goals: Pandiani pen (38) 1-0; Gray (45) 2-0.

Birmingham City (4-4-2): Taylor; Melchiot (Tébily, 18), Cunningham, Upson, Clapham; Pennant (Nafti, 84), Johnson, Clement, Gray; Heskey, Pandiani (Blake, 89). Substitutes not used: Bennett (gk), Anderton.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Dudek; Finnan (Pellegrino, 79), Carragher, Hyypia, Traoré; Hamann, Biscan (Smicer, h-t); Baros, Gerrard, Riise (Nunez, 63); Morientes. Substitutes not used: Carson (gk), Warnock.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Birmingham City Tébily, Heskey.

Man of the match: Heskey.

Attendance: 29,318.

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