Liverpool losing sight of fourth place
Birmingham City 1 Liverpool 1
A point for Liverpool at Birmingham failed to end the Blues' seven-month, 13-game unbeaten home record and increased the advantage held by Manchester City and Tottenham in the pursuit of fourth place.
For nine minutes early in the second half, the length of time for which they led through Steven Gerrard's 10th goal of the season, it looked as if Liverpool were capable of improving on the joint worst away record in the top half of the Premier League.
They then conceded a soft equaliser to Birmingham left-back Liam Ridgewell, who according to his tongue-in-cheek manager, Alex McLeish, "ghosted in like Martin Peters". Although David Ngog spurned three chances as a substitute for Fernando Torres, who Benitez at first said was taken off "to protect his knee" and then described as "exhausted", Liverpool lacked the cutting edge to beat Joe Hart again.
Birmingham remain the only club over whom Benitez has never recorded a league victory – notwithstanding a 7-0 FA Cup rout here on Steve Bruce's watch, this was the eighth attempt – and Liverpool's mediocre form on their travels looks increasingly likely to cost them their annual tilt at the Champions League. Given the stakes, they were surprisingly tentative during the first half and might have suffered an even worse setback but for a bad second-half miss by Lee Bowyer.
Liverpool have now played a game more than City and Spurs – who, intriguingly, play each other at Eastlands next month – and seventh-placed Aston Villa. "We didn't have any margin for error and now we have even less," their manager admitted, apparently no longer "guaranteeing" fourth spot. "But we have to believe we can win our last five games and have confidence that the others will lose."
Asked whether this represented a good point, given the failure of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal to win at Birmingham, Benitez replied tersely: "No, I don't think so. We knew it was a difficult place to come, but we deserved to win and had the chances to do so." McLeish acknowledged that Liverpool had the opportunities to win the match, but taking Bowyer's profligacy into account, the Scot deemed the outcome "a fair result".
Benitez's team selection had appeared positive on paper, with one of his two customary holding midfielders, Javier Mascherano, left on the bench throughout, with Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benayoun nominally pressing forward in support of Torres. Yet for a side to whom victory was imperative, Liverpool initially appeared content with the somewhat anaemic status quo, seldom committing players to attack in sufficient numbers to undermine Birmingham's ploy of massing behind the ball.
Ten minutes before half-time, Liverpool finally increased the tempo. Benayoun sprayed the ball wide to the right from where Torres speared a cross to the edge of the six-yard box. Maxi Rodriguez met the ball with a first-time effort, only for Hart to deny the Argentine his first goal for Liverpool by twisting in mid-air, touching the ball on to the bar and gathering it as it fell.
The cameo had the effect of reminding both sets of players that a marginal increase in pace and commitment might tilt the contest their way. Birmingham had seemed satisfied to sit back and settle for the preservation of their record, but within two minutes of Hart's heroics, after Jose Reina conceded a corner by spilling a shot by Cameron Jerome, Scott Dann headed inches too high when the Liverpool keeper inexplicably missed James McFadden's flag-kick.
One of Birmingham's strengths this season, partly accounting for the fact that only Tottenham and Manchester United have conceded fewer home goals, has been their solidity when defending set-pieces. They looked to have dealt with Gerrard's corner shortly after half-time, and when the ball flew to Glen Johnson outside the area, the home supporters jeered as his shot was miscued.
Unhappily for Birmingham, a skewed drive turned into a precise pass to Gerrard. Jinking past Bowyer to work the ball on to his right foot, the Liverpool captain buried his shot through a crowded area and into the far corner of the net for his 10th goal of the season.
The lead was short-lived. McFadden, looking up from his position on the Birmingham right, spotted Ridgewell galloping forward down the opposite flank. With all Liverpool's defenders sucked towards the near post, the former Everton winger crossed to the back stick where – to compound the indignity of it all for the visitors – the unmarked defender ushered the ball over the line, possibly from an offside position, with a thrust of his groin.
Ngog, booed on to the pitch as Torres' replacement for the alleged dive that earned a point-saving penalty when the sides met at Anfield, came within inches of restoring Liverpool's advantage with a header that flashed inches wide. The Frenchman was also off target with a shot following Rodriguez's pass and fired straight at Hart in stoppage time, leaving Liverpool's followers to wonder what might have been had the chances gone to Torres. In fairness to Ngog, Torres had never looked like scoring.
In between the first two misses, however, the rampaging Ridgewell's cross found Bowyer with the goal at his mercy. The midfielder scuffed the ball wide and Liverpool were spared another away-day calamity.
Birmingham City (4-4-1-1): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Gardner, Ferguson, Bowyer, Fahey; McFadden (Phillips, 78); Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Larsson, Benitez, Michel, Parnaby, Vignal.
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina; G Johnson, Kyrgiakos, Carragher, Insua; Rodriguez, Gerrard, Lucas, Benayoun (Babel, 71); Kuyt (Aquilani, 81); Torres (Ngog, 65). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Mascherano, Degen.
Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).
Booked: Birmingham Fahey, Gardner; Liverpool Lucas.
Man of the match: Ferguson