Liverpool Daily Post report

THERE may be 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire but a giant one in Liverpool's defence left them staring at Europe or nothing last night.

And nothing doesn't even bear thinking about.

Anfield has always been kind to the visitors and Nathan Blake's 84th-minute winner ensured a return to the scene of their greatest triumph was almost was sweet as that 1995 title success. At least, this time they actually won.

That will be the galling part for Gerard Houllier, who quickly acknowledged seeing his side's best hope of silverware slip away as a "major setback".

Having huffed and puffed but done little to actually look as though they were capable of scoring the goals needed to conclude this tie at the first attempt, so Liverpool should at least have this morning been planning to make a better fist of it in a replay.

But had he not suffered from horrendous bad luck this season, Houllier would have had none at all - and the continuing absence of both Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler proved one game too far.

His players could boast a welter of possession, but too often it came to nothing as moves petered out long before Blackburn keeper John Filan was tested amid a glut of misplaced balls and wrong passes.

Long before the fear of being caught by a sucker punch crossed everyone's mind, there was the quandary of exactly where a goal would come from.

It was not to be Titi Camara's night, but then it is asking too much to expect the African to produce his exotic blend of skills and spectacular goals when those around him come up with blanks of their own. Far better as a support striker then when he is having to lead the line, Liverpool appeared lightweight in attack with Danny Murphy and then Vladimir Smicer faring little better in attempting to find a way past the determined duo of Darren Peacock and Christian Dailly. With Erik Meijer also injured, the only other striker was young Jon Newby, ushered on as a last-gasp substitute when the battle had already been lost.

Problems existed elsewhere, however.

Essentially a Premiership club which still boasts a smattering of Premiership players, Blackburn arrived with a record not dissimilar to Liverpool's one defeat in 12 and determined to show their season outside the top-flight is merely an unplanned sabbatical.

Industrious and organised, this was never going to be a walkover and yet most of Anfield could have expected their own heroes to match those qualities and then display some more of their own.

But with Lee Carsley and Per Frandsen prowling in midfield, Dietmar Hamann and Jamie Carragher were never convincing and even when Liverpool poured forward there wasn't the guile or invention around the Blackburn penalty area to match the approach play.

"We ran out of ideas," Houllier was forced to admit, which should offer Watford encouragement they don't necessary deserve ahead of the weekend.

Overall, they lacked width, while Steven Gerrard, despite doing well against the dangerous Damien Duff, remains far better when he bolsters the engine room as opposed to trying to alleviate the frailties at full-back by filling in on the right.

There was a warning as early as the eighth minute when Frandsen forged his way through a posse of red shirts a little too easily and slipped Blake, booked for a crude challenge on Carragher seconds earlier, for a clear run on goal.

As Westerveld advanced, the striker aimed a chip at the open goal and then recoiled in horror as his effort faded wide of the upright. It was a shame there wasn't the same reaction a little later.

The early skirmishes suggested the first goal would be vital, but Liverpool passed up an even better opportunity to nudge themselves in front and force a more offensive display from Tony Parkes' players.

A sweeping move on 19 minutes started with Matteo in the left-back position, before the ball was worked through midfield to Smicer on the right and his angled pass dissected the defensive cover and left Murphy one on one with Filan.

The finish the build-up deserved failed to materialise, however, as Filan's trailing leg diverted to safety Murphy's attempt to guide the ball home.

While inducing further frustration upon Liverpool, the let-off merely stoked Blackburn's confidence and they continued to stand toe-to-toe, happily trading blows and Westerveld was forced to make two excellent saves as the first-half ended with neither side able to claim any advantage.

The 'Egil' - as in Ostenstad - never quited landed on Merseyside and while he was busy demonstrating why that was a good thing, Blake again went close bringing a full-length stop from the in-form Westerveld, who is flourishing into one of the best goalkeepers in the country. Then two minutes before the interval, a patient move involving the impressive Damien Johnson and Frandsen ended with Simon Grayson, an early substitute introduced without the slightest whiff of controversy, firing another shot into the Dutchman's midriff.

If the second-half was all Liverpool, there remained an annoying lack of a cutting edge when it mattered most.

Murphy had volleyed a sharp chance high into the Kop, before his swivel and shot after collecting a low Gerrard centre on 57 minutes offered the optical illusion to half of the ground that he had, in fact, beaten Filan. If only.

It was to be his last contribution as he was slightly harshly replaced by David Thompson seconds later as Houllier attempted to muster more penetration from his injury-ravaged resources.

Smicer moved into attack, but there was to be no change in fortune. Not for the first time the Czech held his head in his hands after watching Camara give his markers the slip for once, only for Filan to produce an excellent save to beat away his fierce drive.

Matteo also cursed his luck as his snap-shot sent the keeper scrambling across his line, but flew past the wrong side of the post.

But the continued frustration began to breed indiscipline and sowed the seeds for the nightmare which followed. With skipper Sami Hyypia again in commanding form, Liverpool had little to worry about bar searching for a goal as Blackburn defended in numbers and offered only a fleeting menace on the break.

That all changed with five minutes remaining, however.

Frandsen found space to attack down the right, but that was nothing compared to the acres of space Blake found himself in when the Dane fed him with an astute through-ball. With defenders trailing in his wake, the Welsh international, who hadn't even been expected to play because of injury, steered an excellent finish from near the penalty spot past a shell-shocked Westerveld to stun Anfield.

Not even fourth official Uriah Rennie, holding up Ostenstad's number 10 when he had already been replaced, nor three mysterious minutes of injury-time offered any hope.

It simply wasn't Liverpool's night. If they don't make Europe, and some of Houllier's youngsters need to mature overnight, it won't be their season.

LIVERPOOL (4-4-2): Westerveld, Gerrard, Henchoz, Hyypia, Matteo; Smicer, Carragher (Newby 89), Hamann, Berger; Camara, Murphy (Thompson 57). Subs: Nielsen, Heggem, Staunton.

BLACKBURN ROVERS (4-4-2): Filan, Kenna (Grayson 10), Peacock, Dailly, Davidson; Johnson, Carsley, Frandsen, Duff; Blake (Gillespie 89), Ostenstad (Dunn 76). Subs: Kelly, Jansen.

BOOKINGS: Blake (foul 6), Peacock (foul 32), Hamann (foul 75).

REFEREE: Mr G Poll (Tring).

Copyright - Liverpool Daily Post

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