The fight for survival at the bottom of the Premiership took another unexpected turn when Blackburn virtually committed suicide at Ewood Park yesterday. Eager to play a Liverpool team who had lost their previous two matches, the home side hardly improved their chances of staying up when they presented the visitors with two of the goals which made them suffer an untimely and damaging defeat.
Blackburn's only consolation was that Charlton, the team immediately below them in the bottom four, lost heavily at Everton. That means, with both teams level on points, next Saturday's game between the two of them at the Valley ought to be a real dogfight. As for Liverpool, this handsome victory offered some relief from the spectre of finishing in their lowest position since they were relegated from the old First Division 45 years ago.
Not for the first time this season, the erratic David James lost his place in the Liverpool goal to Brad Friedel following successive home defeats to Aston Villa and Leicester, while Steve Staunton took over from Phil Babb in front of the American international.
With Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Patrik Berger unavailable, Karlheinz Riedle was asked to operate as a lone striker, with members of a five-man midfield getting forward in support whenever possible.
Such safety-first tactics would have been unthinkable not so long ago for a Liverpool team travelling to Ewood Park. Especially since Blackburn, hit just as hard as Liverpool by injuries and suspension, had to replace the banned Keith Gillespie and Callum Davidson for this match, with Gary Croft and Damien Duff coming in for them. So, Gillespie and Davidson joined Jeff Kenna, Billy McKinlay and Chris Sutton on the sidelines.
Not surprisingly, with both teams low on confidence, the match did not begin very promisingly. Neither side found it easy to string more than a couple of passes together at a time and the play was virtually featureless until Blackburn suddenly made a gift of a goal to Liverpool after 23 minutes. It was scored by Steve McManaman, who tapped the ball over the line when John Filan, the Blackburn goalkeeper, failed to hold a back-pass swept at him unexpectedly by Darren Peacock.
Croft's pass had put Peacock under pressure on the edge of his own penalty area but the back-pass was flighted far too awkwardly for the goalkeeper to field comfortably. The fury Blackburn manager Brian Kidd must have felt at giving away such a soft goal was partly responsible, perhaps, for the altercation he got into on the touchline with Phil Thompson, Liverpool's assistant manager, when Riedle was fouled by McAteer three minutes after McManaman had scored. Incensed by something or other, Kidd had to be restrained by his own assistant, Tony Parkes, as he tried to make his way to the Liverpool bench.
Although Thompson later went across to apologise to Kidd, the Blackburn manager's mood can hardly have been improved when Liverpool scored twice more before the interval with some help from the home side. Their marking was poor, for instance, as Jamie Redknappp completed a move by Dominic Matteo, McManaman and David Thompson by thumping Thompson's square ball into the top corner of Filan's net from 25 yards.
That was after 31 minutes and, a minute later, the score was 3-0. This time, McAteer and Peacock collided going for the same ball inside their own penalty area and it broke nicely for Oyvind Leonhardsen to run unhindered at the Blackburn goal.
Friedel had little or nothing to do during the whole of the first half, and his workload did not increase immediately when Blackburn tried to put some pressure on him at the start of the second half. He did not have to make a save after Ashley Ward had dispossessed Rigobert Song because the Blackburn striker put his shot wide of the far post. Then in a goalmouth scramble following a Jason Wilcox free-kick, the Liverpool goalkeeper easily caught Kevin Gallacher's mishit shot.
However, there was no saving the left-footed half-volley Duff struck sweetly through a crowded penalty area and into the bottom corner when the ball was headed out by the Liverpool defence after 63 minutes. Duff almost scored again seven minutes later, too. Released down the left by Wilcox, he slid the ball across the face of the Liverpool goal and only inches wide of the far post with the visitors' defence in disarray.
Blackburn were now in full cry, and Friedel had to make a diving save to prevent Lee Carsley narrowing the lead further with a header. Only a goal-line clearance by Staunton denied a shot from substitute David Dunn, too. Yet Riedle ought to have restored Liverpool's three-goal advantage when Paul Ince put him clean through. Instead, the German's lack of pace allowed Filan to smother his shot.
Goals: McManaman (23 mins), Redknapp (32), Leonhardsen (32), Duff (62).
Half-Time : 3-0 to Liverpool.
Booked: Thompson, Song, Matteo.
Attendance : 29,944.
Team (4-5-1): Friedel, Song (Kvarme 83), Staunton, Matteo, Carragher, Thompson, Ince, Redknapp, Leonhardsen, McManaman, Riedle (Dundee 80).
Substitutes (not used): Ferri, Bjornebye, James.
Referee : R. Harris (Oxford).
League position: 9th (47 points after 34 matches).
Copyright - The Sunday Telegraph