Liverpool 2 Birmingham City 2: match report
Once again, Steven Gerrard rescued Rafa Benitez. Once again, Liverpool's defensive frailties were exposed in a helter-skelter match high on octane and carnage. Once again, the curse of diving scarred a Premier League game. It was when David Ngog fell to earth with 20 minutes remaining, conning Peter Walton into believing that Lee Carsley had made contact, that Gerrard was able to equalise from the spot and ease the pressure on Rafa Benitez. Related ArticlesBenítez must pull Liverpool out of mirePremier League actionPremier League tablePremier League fixturesTelegraph player raterSport on televisionLiverpool's manager had appeared trapped in a nightmare when Christian Benitez cancelled out Ngog's superb opener and then Cameron Jerome made it 2-1, delighting the Birmingham City supporters. It had been a night of extraordinary sights, not least Birmingham's owner Carson Yeung appearing to have dressed for a Yogi Bear tribute evening with a fur-coat the size of the Yosemite. It was certainly cold enough to send a chill through spectators, particularly Liverpool fans in an astonishing first half. The Kop could have been forgiven a shiver of fear as the teams lined up. Famous names could be numbered amongst the absentees. Gerrard was sitting on the bench, protecting his adductor strain for 44 minutes until Albert Riera tore his left hamstring. Fernando Torres was missing entirely, his own groin problem ruling him out. Jamie Carragher was suspended. No wonder this was a nervy night for Liverpool. Keeping faith in their 4-2-3-1 system, they were initially too sharp for Birmingham, too quick to get at and behind the visitors' defence. Yossi Benayoun was first to show, racing down the inside-right channel, reaching the byeline and angling the ball across. Roger Johnson and Joe Hart dealt with the danger that time but Liverpool were simply warming up. Glen Johnson, all pace and purpose going forward, took a similar path to Benayoun, nimbly dribbling into the space behind Liam Ridgewell and clipping the ball to the near post. Ngog's snap-shot was saved well by Hart but the ball ran loose. Liverpool sensed Birmingham's momentary vulnerability, keeping the pressure on. Dirk Kuyt unleashed a shot. Again Hart excelled, parrying the danger. Again the siege continued, Riera lifting the ball from left to right towards Ngog. His response was little short of sensational, conjuring up one of the great goals in front of the Kop. Catching the ball beautifully as it fell through the foggy air, the French striker swept it left-footed into the back of the net. A welcome sense of calm descended on Anfield. Surely this would not be a rollercoaster ride now? Liverpool would surely now go on and dominate, piecing together more neat attacks as the one that brought Ngog's fabulous strike. But nothing is straightforward with Liverpool at the moment. Unpredictability rules. Benitez was duly frustrated by Benitez, then Jerome as Birmimgham turned the half on its head. Their No 11, Christian Benitez, known as Chucho soon struck and all the old uncertainties swept through Liverpool again. As well worked as his goal was, it could, really should have been prevented. When James McFadden lifted the ball to the far-post, Roger Johnson's team-mates cleverly engineered some space for him, allowing him a free header back in. Scott Dann nodded on and there was Benitez, reacting quicker than Reina, to head in. If Liverpool were shocked, Birmingham fans could be forgiven for themselves being slightly surprised: this was the first time McLeish's men had scored before the half-hour mark this season. Enraged by allowing Birmingham to equalise, Liverpool sought to rally, Javier Mascherano storming forward and demanding a first-class tip-over save from Hart. Yet Liverpool's defence continued to live dangerously. When Martin Skrtel was caught forward, Liverpool were left exposed as Birmingham went through the gears. Jerome sent Benitez through Liverpool's depleted back-line, and Anfield held its breath. Chucho rounded Reina but shot into the crowd. Lucky escape. Riera then shredded his sinews stretching to flick the ball goalwards, bringing Gerrard into the game, eliciting a huge roar from the Kop. Here, surely, was Red Adair, the man to help Liverpool reclaim the lead. Yet it was Birmingham who stunned Anfield. As thoughts were turning to the break, Skrtel lofted a rather aimless long ball forward which Dann headed back into the hosts' half. Jerome seized possession, and powered forward, holding off Mascherano and then letting fly from 30 yards, sending an absolute screamer of a shot dipping in over a startled Reina. Birmingham's impassioned fans loved it, taunting Rafa Benitez with chants of "you're getting sacked in the morning''. No chance. Liverpool's board remain supportive. So does the Kop. His players certainly fought for him. As Anfield screamed itself hoarse, Liverpool went for broke. Mascherano had a shot blocked by Lee Bowyer. Gerrard headed Glen Johnson's superb cross against the post. Johnson was so lively down the right that McLeish withdrew McFadden, the former Evertonian given a derisive farewell by Liverpool fans. The incoming Gregory Vignal, formerly of this parish, skipped on to warm applause and immediately set about trying to tame Johnson. Then controversy. Huge controversy. Challenged by Lee Carsley, Ngog threw himself to the ground without a hint of contact, infuriating the Birmingham players and their noisy fans nearby. Carsley and Ngog were both cautioned for scuffling before Gerrard, composure personified, slotted in the penalty. As Liverpool poured forward, looking for the winner, Alberto Aquilani arrived to bring some inventive touches to midfield but Birmingham, whose centre-halves were magnificent, held out.
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