Liverpool saved from humiliation by Gerrard
Liverpool 2 Birmingham City 2
In the good old days, when Rafael Benitez found himself in a tight spot, he would call upon Steven Gerrard and the skipper, with the figurative Superman cape fluttering behind him, would do the business and send Anfield into raptures.
Last night there was another Gerrard rescue act but this was not Olympiakos or Milan who had pushed Liverpool into a corner, this was Birmingham City. And no-one left Anfield wondering whether they had witnessed a game to live with the best of all time. Many of them will have been wondering if the Liverpool manager has just about used up all his luck.
Gerrard scored the penalty that saved a point for Liverpool, rising from the bench as a substitute and playing on practically one leg, but with one win in nine games this was not one of those classic Anfield nights. It was hard not to think that when the final whistle came that much of the home crowd had to stop the booing from rising in their throats at another two points tossed away.
The circumstances of Liverpool's equaliser, a dive by David Ngog that was so blatant that even Benitez did not think it was a penalty, was not particularly glorious. Yes, they dominated long periods of the game and laid siege to the Birmingham goal but when required Alex McLeish's team showed up the weaknesses of Benitez's defence remorselessly.
His team's goals were scored by Christian Benitez and Cameron Jerome, neither of whom had scored in the league before this season, although the latter's strike will rank alongside any goal this year in terms of quality. Up in the stand it was not surprising to see the suspended Jamie Carragher sitting in the stand with his arms folded, shaking his head. At least he will not have to worry about getting his place back for the game against Manchester City a week on Saturday.
That game against Mark Hughes' side, one point ahead of Liverpool in sixth place, has taken on even greater significance and Benitez will hope that the casualties from last night have recovered to play some part. As well as Gerrard's problems, Fernando Torres was, Benitez said, not "confident" enough of his fitness to play last night but does not yet require surgery. Yossi Benayoun and Albert Riera both limped off the pitch injured.
Viewed from afar there will be many who find it hard to understand how Benitez manages to hang onto his job in such circumstances. Within Anfield, however, there is no discernible mood for change. When Liverpool led, the Kop sang their manager's name; when they fell behind they did not turn on the team. Benitez's position feels safer than many think.
Still, the Liverpool manager found reasons to be cheerful afterwards, pointing out that his team had dominated long periods of the game. Scant comfort when they do not have a finisher of Torres' class to put the ball in the net. Benitez does deserve credit for coming clean that Ngog should not have been awarded a penalty. You do not have to think too hard to come up with a few Premier League managers who would not have been as gracious.
After holding Manchester City to a draw last Sunday, McLeish's team deserved this result for their sheer fortitude. They lost Teemu Tainio early on to injury and Lee Carsley came on in his place, an Everton veteran who reveled in the hate of the home crowd. His post-match attack on Ngog for cheating and "embarrassing" his family was pretty much as full-on as they come and hinted at the bad feeling between the two sides.
Had Fabio Capello been watching, he would have seen a fine performance from Glen Johnson at right-back but also an eye-catching display from Joe Hart. The young goalkeeper on loan from Manchester City did as much as the two goalscorers to earn the club a point and he made two exceptional saves from Ngog and Dirk Kuyt before Liverpool's first goal. Ngog scored at the far post with his second attempt.
That was the 13th minute and Birmingham were obliged to cling on yet in the midst of it all they struck back. Christian Benitez – "Chucho" to his friends – was in the right place to head home after first Roger Johnson and then Scott Dann won headers in the area from James McFadden's free-kick on 30 minutes.
That was the kind of goal you might have expected McLeish's team to score against Liverpool. The second was the kind of goal that only the likes of Gerrard usually score at Anfield. Jerome must have been 35 yards out from goal with precious few options when, as he held off Javier Mascherano, he let fly. The ball dipped and swerved over Pepe Reina.
Gerrard was already on by then but it was not until 69 minutes – when Ngog cut in from the left and leapt the tackle of Carsley before crashing to ground – that the captain was obliged to step up to the spot. He scored and might have had the winner with a subsequent header that struck the post. But even a Gerrard winner would surely have just papered over the bigger problems that blight Benitez's side.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Agger, Skrtel, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas (Aquilani, 82); Benayoun (Babel, 76), Kuyt, Riera (Gerrard, 45); Ngog. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Kyrgiakos, Spearing, Darby.
Birmingham (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Tainio (Carsley, 16), Bowyer, McFadden (Vignal, 67); Benitez (McSheffrey, 86), Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Phillips, Espinoza, Queudrue.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire).
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