Dominic Fifield at Anfield
Thursday February 2, 2006
The banner behind the goal read "Fowler God 11, welcome back to heaven" and, for a split second deep into stoppage-time last night, Robbie Fowler must have felt fulfilled. Liverpool were laying siege to the Birmingham goal when he eked out rare space to conjure an overhead kick and batter the loose ball into the net. The Kop erupted, the fairy-tale return apparently complete, only for a linesman's flag to snuff out the dream. "It would have been the perfect ending," said Rafael Benítez.
The second coming had overshadowed this fixture, though all that is left this morning is a nagging sense of frustration. This was a sloppy performance, the hosts' inability to dispose of opponents reduced to 10 after only 28 minutes damning. The frenzy of the final few minutes - when Dietmar Hamann struck the bar, Maik Taylor somehow tipped away a Xabi Alonso free-kick and Fowler was denied by the linesman - masked the fact that Liverpool hardly deserved a ninth consecutive home league win. "Very, very disappointing" was Benítez's assessment.
For so long it had appeared made for the returning No11 to make his mark, the poise and purpose of City's play in the opening half-hour utterly wrecked by Damien Johnson's harsh dismissal. Thereafter, with the visitors retreated into their shells, it took Fowler's emergence on the touchline, to bellowed applause, to generate the momentum to edge them ahead.
The striker was skipping back to the dug-out for his introduction when Steven Gerrard, a modern-day Kop idol, slipped Fernando Morientes to the byline before prodding the Spaniard's pull-back through the muddle in the goalmouth.
The roar that greeted the goal was matched by that for Fowler's introduction, his 25-minute cameo crammed with clever turns and neat passes. Luis García, Harry Kewell and Morientes should have come up with a second goal, but a side with only 29 league goals in 21 games lived up to its reputation. City duly rallied.
Only Chelsea had previously punctured Liverpool's defence in this arena all season, and the hosts were seeking a club-record 11th consecutive clean sheet. But with three minutes remaining Stan Lazaridis crossed from the left and Emile Heskey, another returning forward, saw his header palmed away by José Reina. From the resulting corner, the excellent Chris Sutton nodded back and across and Alonso, beyond his goalkeeper on the goal-line, saw the ball dribble from his body into the net.
"A result like this can turn our season," said Steve Bruce. City had been the contest's more coherent side until, 28 minutes in, Johnson crunched his boot into the inside of Daniel Agger's left knee as the debutant centre-half slid in to clear. The tackle was ugly but hardly malicious, yet Uriah Rennie, standing over the challenge, flashed red.
City will appeal the dismissal today. "The ball's off the floor and both of them are tackling for possession, and Johnson's even got the ball," said Bruce. "To wave the red card was rash, but we all make mistakes."
Given that Bruce lost David Dunn to a calf strain six minutes later and the substitute Mikael Forssell to a similar injury while warming up near the end, he deserved his luck when Sutton's flick cannoned off his own bar. Not even divine inspiration could see the hosts home.