Liverpool 0 West Bromwich Albion 2: One point in six League matches, a third-round FA Cup exit, and then the whole sorry Peter Odemwingie saga.
Since winning at Queen’s Park Rangers on Boxing Day, life has been pretty grim for West Bromwich Albion but last night that all changed. With Ben Foster showing the ability that made him an England goalkeeper and making a pivotal penalty save from Steven Gerrard after 77 minutes, Steve Clarke’s side went on to stage a smash-and grab raid as late goals from Gareth McAuley and Romelu Lukaku brought the visitors a first victory of the year.
This win had echoes of last season when Albion ended their 45-year wait to win at Anfield by riding their luck and then striking late. Their scorer that afternoon was the hero-turned-villain himself, Odemwingie, who travelled to Merseyside with the Albion squad but did not make the bench.
Without him, his team-mates showed an impressive togetherness and resolve as they ended Liverpool’s recent resurgence and got their own campaign back on track. For Clarke, returning to the club he left last summer after 18 months as assistant manager, it was a deeply satisfying conclusion. “For a change something went right,” he said. “It’s not been the best year so far.”
In truth, an Albion win looked unlikely for much of this fixture and had Gerrard converted his spot-kick, Liverpool would have probably been celebrating a fourth straight home success. Brendan Rodgers’ team may not have reached the performance levels shown in their recent encouraging draws at Arsenal and Manchester City but they still did enough to bring the very best out of Foster. The visitors’ keeper had already made one outstanding one-handed save from Gerrard in the second half when, on the pre-match advice of his coach Dean Kiely, he dived low to his left to turn away Liverpool’s captain’s penalty, after the midfielder had gone for precision rather than power.
Even Rodgers suggested it had been “a bit harsh” of referee Jon Moss to penalise Jonas Olsson when he jumped for a high ball and Luis Suarez crumpled beneath him in the box. Justice was done with the save and West Bromwich now had the momentum. “When he made that save from the penalty that should never have been given it gave us a bit of positive momentum and belief to go and win the game,” Clarke said. They duly did just that.
Pepe Reina had not made a save up to then but now Youssouf Mulumbu broke forward and unleashed a drive that the Liverpool goalkeeper tipped over. The reprieve was brief as from Chris Brunt’s corner, McAuley leapt high and powered a header in off the underside of the crossbar. Liverpool’s fate was sealed in the 90th minute when James Morrison broke forward and fed substitute Lukaku who held off Daniel Agger before driving past Reina.
The consequence of it all was Albion climbed a place above Liverpool into eighth. Had Liverpool won, they would have moved within three points of sixth-placed Everton but they have still to beat a top-10 team this season – a staggering statistic – and their hopes of a late push for the Champions League now look in tatters.
They certainly missed Daniel Sturridge, who was unable to continue his eye-catching start to life in a red shirt owing to a thigh injury. In his place stepped Jonjo Shelvey, who had an early effort flagged offside in an otherwise subdued start. Anfield felt flat and although Agger went close with a free header from a corner and then failed to connect with Stewart Downing’s driven cross when unmarked in front of goal, the closest we got to a first-half goal was actually when Steven Reid took a careless swipe at a Shelvey cross inside the six-yard box. He was a relieved man when, having kicked the ball against his standing leg, it looped just over the crossbar.
Albion were well-organised in defence and competed manfully in midfield where Clarke was delighted to welcome back Mulumbu for his first appearance since returning from Africa Cup of Nations duty with DR Congo. Mulumbu’s partnership with Claudio Yacob was pivotal to their impressive autumn efforts and Clarke noted: “It is the first time in a number of weeks I have had the luxury to be able to pick Youssouf, Claudio and James [Morrison] in the same midfield.”
All the same, Foster emerged as their hero as Liverpool stepped up a gear in the second half. In the 49th minute he foiled Gerrard at close range after McAuley had blocked a Downing shot, and moments later was equal to a Jordan Henderson backheel. A full-length block then stopped substitute Fabio Borini’s shot before he produced the save of the night, raising his right hand to beat away Gerrard’s powerful drive before Borini turned the rebound wide.
“It was just one of those games where we needed the first goal,” said Rodgers. “We weren’t at our best but we were on the front foot and looking to create.
“Ben Foster has made some brilliant saves that have kept them in the game,” the Liverpool manager added.
On this form it must be a matter of regret for England that Foster retired from international football in 2011. He rejected Roy Hodgson’s attempts to entice him back into the England set-up last May and Clarke said: “There is absolutely no reason he cannot play international football apart from the most important one – he doesn’t want to.”