No glory for Reds in Anfield draw
High-scoring draws featuring Rafa Benitez, Steven Gerrard and comebacks have entered Liverpool folklore, but this will not be bracketed with Istanbul or Cardiff. They were among their most joyous moments of the last six seasons, but this ended amid a sense of frustration.
While such scorelines can indicate equality or parity, it may have been among the most one-sided draws in memory; yet, with some grounds, both teams had reasons to believe they merited victory. Liverpool's last two major trophies came in action-packed matches that defied credibility, but another, in the shape of the Premier League crown, slipped still further away as a winner eluded them.
Getting two goals apiece brought contrasting reactions. Birmingham were the side punching the air at the final whistle, Liverpool the team walking off with an air of despondency after failing to find the desired conclusion to a chaotic narrative. This was a tale of Christian and Rafael Benitez, of Fernando Torres' understudy and Gerrard's return, of a sort of strike generally associated with the Liverpool captain that actually came from Cameron Jerome. It was an attack-versus-defence exercise in which men such as Roger Johnson, Scott Dann and Lee Carsley performed heroics in the Birmingham cause, and it is likely to result in more assaults upon Liverpool's beleaguered manager.
A point was procured controversially - Liverpool were kept alive by a dive - in a game that defied logic and expectations. Fifth place awaited Benitez's men with victory; instead a seventh defeat in nine games beckoned before Carsley slid in, David Ngog headed for the Anfield stratosphere, Peter Walton pointed to the penalty spot and Gerrard converted the penalty.
"It's a joke," said the former Evertonian Carsley. "I'm sure he's got a family [he does; his cousin is Jean-Alain Boumsong]. If I went home having done something like that, I'd be embarrassed."
"It's a clear dive by Ngog," added Alex McLeish. "I don't think there's any real debate but we have to take it on the chin. He's a top referee but I'm sure he will look at it again and see Ngog dived. Lee has dived in and when you dive in you are always at risk, but there's no contact. It wasn't even close to being a penalty."
To his credit, Benitez [the Liverpool manager, not the Birmingham striker] rather concurred: "We had a penalty that maybe wasn't a penalty but we deserve to score. I was asking [Ngog] and he said maybe it wasn't [a penalty]."
It ensured that the young Frenchman ended the evening as he had begun it: in a spotlight that penetrated the Merseyside fog. He initially illuminated Anfield, volleying Albert Riera's cross gloriously into the roof of the Birmingham net. Joe Hart was both helpless and unfortunate: the Birmingham goalkeeper had saved sharply from first Ngog and then Dirk Kuyt before Riera hooked the ball into the Frenchman's path.
It was neither the first nor the last time that the Birmingham back four were subjected to an onslaught. Gerrard, who came on immediately before Jerome's goal and immediately found himself charged with another rescue act, also struck the post. Hart saved well from Javier Mascherano and Yossi Benayoun, but a bombardment of the Blues box yielded just one more, contentious goal.
The outcome further diminished Liverpool's distant hopes of taking the title. Benitez's current policy is not to discuss it. "Since maybe three weeks or four weeks, I am talking about the same," he added. "It is one game at a time, so I will not talk about the table or the position."
Their station is seventh; hardly ideal yet, despite the five league losses, just three points from fourth place in a congested division. Birmingham's is looking healthier after a display of bloody-minded battling. "I felt my defenders and my team were awesome," said McLeish. "It was backs to the wall but the players deserve a lot of credit and possibly three points."
Their defenders were overworked, their attackers isolated, but they prospered on rare breaks. They levelled when James McFadden's deep free-kick was headed into the six-yard box by Johnson, flicked on by Dann and touched in by Benitez. It was the Ecuadorian's first goal in England yet somehow inevitable. This was Benitez versus Benitez: given Liverpool's self-destructive tendencies, it rather epitomised their campaign that the manager's namesake struck.
If that, given the pattern of play, was surprising, what followed was stunning in every respect. Jerome plucked the ball out of the air before striking a wonderful shot that cleared Jose Reina before dipping under the crossbar. It was a triumph for the Blues faithful as much as their No.10: they had advocated the two-striker policy to which McLeish reluctantly acceded. A sense of adventure brought a reward: in the space of 20 minutes, both forwards had struck at Anfield.
McLeish seemed to have listened to the crowd when selecting Jerome and Benitez in harness. Sadly for Birmingham, Walton appeared to heed the raucous Liverpool fans when awarding the dubious penalty.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Glen Johnson - Among a surfeit of candidates, Johnson gave an outstanding display of an attacking full-back's duties. Slaloming between McFadden and Liam Ridgewell at will, he created untold openings.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Benitez argued that his side showed character and he was right. In every aspect other than the scoreline, Liverpool dominated the game and attacked with verve throughout. Mascherano was indefatigable in the midfield, Johnson irrepressible on the right and Ngog a threat in attack. But the concession of two more goals is a concern. If the second was world class, the first was another set-piece. Though Birmingham are a tall team, that, surely, could have been averted.
BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: Dann and Johnson are quietly emerging as one of the division's better central-defensive pairings. Both were dependable and defiant. The eventual statistics will show a large number of Liverpool shots, but it scarcely seemed an exaggeration to say that dozens more were blocked by the brave Blues.
INJURY TIME: Benayoun and Riera both departed with injuries that Liverpool hope will clear up over the international break. Gerrard, who was a substitute, had a galvanising impact without quite looking fully fit while Alberto Aquilani, a late substitute, does not look match fit. Torres had pronounced himself unfit to play.