Sunday, September 23, 2007

Liverpool Lose Their Cutting Edge

The most lethal attack in the Premier League, responsible for 11 goals in the opening four games, was frustrated for the second successive game and suddenly some familiar anxieties are beginning to afflict Liverpool.

Vastly superior to their brave opponents for almost the entire game, Rafa Benitez’s team failed to secure the win their control merited through their failure to manufacture more clear-cut opportunities and flagrant profligacy when they did.

Johan Djourou, the 19-year-old on loan from Arsenal, was the epitome of Birmingham’s splendid defiance but Benitez could have expected a more emphatic response to the questions raised during a chastening week. His decision to leave Fernando Torres on the bench yesterday will add to the questions over Liverpool’s ability to end their 18-year wait for another league title. With Peter Crouch also a substitute, the partnership of Andriy Voronin and Dirk Kuyt lacked the necessary cutting edge, for the truth is that Birmingham should have been put to the sword. But Benitez, apparently, is encouraged by his side’s start to the season.

Liverpool made an assertive start. John Arne Riise, on the overlap, played a smart one-two with Ryan Babel on the edge of the Birmingham penalty area, which opened a gap almost immediately and the Norwegian might have done better with a low, powerfully-struck shot that went across the face of goal.

Steven Gerrard was ruthless in breaking up potential Birmingham counterattacks, putting in two particularly hard challenges on Mehdi Nafti and Sebastian Larsson early on and Liverpool’s passing was crisp.

But the promise of some high-tempo fireworks quickly evaporated, giving way to a tepid, disappointing first half.

Having made 38 changes to his team in eight matches previously this season, Benitez, the Liverpool manager, made several more. His hand was forced over defender Daniel Agger and midfielder Xabi Alonso, who were both ruled out with broken metatarsals. Whether the constant tinkering is a factor or not, the fluidity of their dominating display against Derby three weeks ago was conspicuously lacking as the team remained in second gear.

Birmingham’s cause was not helped by an injury sustained by Borja Oubina in the 12th minute. His role was to sit just in front of the back four, but he had to be stretchered off and Blues reverted to four in midfield when Gary McSheffrey was introduced. Starved of possession in attacking areas and closed down fast any moment they threatened, neither McSheffrey on the left nor Sebastian Larsson on the right could make any inroads and Birmingham’s only shot on target in the opening half was an optimistic effort from 40 yards by Wilson Palacios, which Jose Reina gathered comfortably.

Maik Taylor in goal was on a higher state of alert. Liverpool struggled to produce sufficient incisive movement among their attacking players but, from a corner rolled along the deck by Babel, Riise made a sweet connection from 30 yards with the inside of his left boot and his shot narrowly cleared the Birmingham crossbar.

Franck Queudrue made a strong challenge on Kuyt to block the striker’s shot at the expense of another corner but from set pieces Liverpool remained largely impotent. Kuyt headed wide from a dangerous cross by Gerrard, then shot wide from outside the area as frustration grew.

The closest the home side came to a breakthrough was just before half-time when Gerrard played a short free kick to Jermaine Pennant, whose 25-yard shot had to be tipped over by Taylor.

Liverpool’s play lacked the invention, pace and penetration to break down Birmingham’s dogged defending. The Anfield crowd could barely await the introduction of Torres, who was finally unleashed by Benitez just beyond the hour.

Liverpool at last started to ask serious questions of the Birmingham defence but still they held firm. Gerrard and Pennant were combining on the right side of their penalty area with greater effect, stretching Queudrue and Liam Ridgewell. Jamie Carragher’s shot from the edge of the area was blocked by Djourou and yielded a corner, which Pennant steered towards the near post and Gerrard met with a low shot that Nafti, reacting sharply on the line, managed to block and clear. Voronin, who struggled to bring authority to his striking role, almost capitalised on a stray pass by Djourou, holding off the defender and his teammate Ridgewell, to force a fine save from Taylor from the edge of the area.

Birmingham often had 10 men behind the ball, with only Cameron Jerome up front, but the constant pressure was taking its toll. Pennant managed to move in behind the defence from a superb ball by Gerrard and the winger’s low cross had to be booted away by Ridgewell just ahead of Kuyt at the near post. Crouch was added to the attack and increased the stress for Birmingham as his aerial threat was put to use.

But it was the class of Torres that almost made the difference. Pennant was increasingly finding space on the right in behind Birmingham’s beleaguered defence and a cross into Torres in the centre yielded an opportunity. The Spanish striker produced a stunning overhead kick that just cleared the crossbar, much to the relief of Taylor.

As Liverpool maintained their momentum, Torres intervened again with a clever backheel which Crouch and Gerrard ran onto, and only a perfectly-timed tackle by Stephen Kelly saved Birmingham on the edge of the box. Crouch squandered a final opportunity with a wayward header and Birmingham’s bravery and resilience proved enough to deny Liverpool victory.

Two points lost, which Benitez and his team may come to rue.

Liverpool 0 Birmingham 0

The voices of Birmingham's delighted fans boomed around Anfield at the end of this bitterly frustrating Barclays Premier League game for Liverpool.

They may be still unbeaten and boss Rafael Benitez was able to utilise £40million plus of striking talent, but nobody had the ability to prise open the massed blue ranks.

Birmingham unashamedly strung 10 men across their own penalty area at times and fought like lions for a point.

The Midlanders were clearly not going to be letting themselves suffer a six-goal thrashing like Derby did recently, and set out to suffocate the life from Liverpool's game.

Steve Bruce's side more than achieved their aim - and fully deserved the point.

Liam Ridgewell and Johan Djourou were outstanding at the back and Benitez has still to register a league win over Bruce's men after five attempts.

Benitez restricted himself to just two changes - he has been averaging five a match so far this term - from the team which drew their Champions League game in Porto in midweek.

Fit-again John Arne Riise returned in defence with Andriy Voronin coming in up front as Liverpool attempted to maintain their unbeaten record this term.

Birmingham arrived with a suffocating gameplan, and set about frustrating Liverpool from the start.

Liverpool might have put six goals past Derby last time out in the league at Anfield, but Birmingham looked a totally different proposition.

They strung five across a deep midfield and worked to deny Liverpool space to run into.

Gaps were limited. Ryan Babel combined to play Riise in on the left, and his fierce low cross was too far ahead of Voronin.

Babel then cut in from the left and found Dirk Kuyt - but the striker was forced into a hurried shot wide.

Birmingham's system, though, was disrupted on 16 minutes by what looked a bad injury to Borja Oubina on his full debut for the Midlanders - the loanee from Celta Vigo was carried off and replaced by Gary McSheffrey.

Mehdi Nafti moved into the midfield holding role, and immediately there was space for Riise to fire a dipping 20-yard effort just over.

Birmingham were regimented and organised and were forcing Liverpool to make all the decisions.

Chances were rare, with Kuyt heading wide from a Steven Gerrard cross in the 26th minute.

Jermaine Pennant, against his old club, was switched from right to left wing - and Babel moved in the opposite direction.

But openings, space and time on the ball remained at a premium.

Birmingham at times had 10 players in their final third - with Cameron Jerome the exception - but Bruce's men were sticking to their plan diligently.

Pennant produced a 25-yard effort which was turned over the bar by Maik Taylor, before Jose Reina made his only contribution to the first half when Wilson Palacios shot from 25 yards.

Liverpool continued to toil after the break, and Jamie Carragher saw an 18-yard effort deflected just over.

From Pennant's corner, Gerrard stabbed in a near post effort which Nafti cleared off the line.

Voronin was next to go close, stumbling as he picked up a through-ball, but still able to fire in a low shot that Taylor saved well to his left.

Liverpool sent on Fernando Torres for Babel on the hour, before Olivier Kapo forced Reina into a save with a shot from 30 yards.

Liam Ridgewell was then booked in the 62nd minute for obstructing Reina as he tried to kick clear.

Birmingham increasingly fancied their chances and five minutes later they sent on an extra striker in Garry O'Connor for Palacios.

Peter Crouch finally got on after 74 minutes to add some aerial threat, replacing Voronin - and two minutes later Torres produced an overhead kick which flashed inches over from Pennant's corner.

Birmingham were looking now to punish Liverpool on the break, and McSheffrey almost achieved that with an 18-yard effort which went just over.

Rafael Schmitz replaced Jerome in the 79th minute, as Liverpool's players began to getting in the way of each other in their desperation for a goal.

Torres' backheel was meant for Gerrard's run - but Crouch collided with his more-than-annoyed captain six yards out.

Steve Finnan replaced the injured Pennant with three minutes left, the winger looking to have picked up a hamstring problem.

Gerrard's corner soon after found Crouch rising unchallenged, but he could only bounce his header into the Kop, summing up Liverpool's day.