Liverpool fail to convince

There are several aspects within Liverpool's team that are worryingly unsatisfactory. These cannot be wholly camouflaged by an overdue home victory, achieved courtesy of spectacular goals in the last quarter of an hour by Harry Kewell and Emile Heskey.

Steve Bruce's functional, physical Birmingham side, playing above their natural station, threatened Liverpool with a fourth home defeat during the first hour but eventually were obliged to accept what they deserved.

Nevertheless, Bruce had a genuine lament about Liverpool's first goal, a penalty awarded barely two minutes after Mikael Forssell had put them in front on the half-hour. "It was, to say the least, a soft penalty," Bruce said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Only the referee knew what he gave it for. I don't, and I've seen the rerun."

The Anfield anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone, nowadays has something of the nostalgic, almost melancholy, ring of West Ham's I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. These are frustrating times for a giant temporarily in decline. Steven Gerrard, the captain, has talked of fourth place being the best hope this season. On his, and the team's, performance in the first half, 14th would have been nearer the mark.

The absence through injury of Michael Owen and Milan Baros, critical to the attack, plus Jamie Carragher and Stephane Henchoz from defence, provides mitigation of course. Gerard Houllier, the manager, remains upbeat, even if the uncertainty about Owen's long-term future at the club remains unsettling. What Liverpool urgently need is not so much victory as a string of them.

For a major player, Gerrard himself is, like David Beckham, short on some technical accomplishments normally expected at the game's forefront. His first-time control, for instance, is not good - he could never play with his back to goal up front - and he has a tendency, with club and country, to over-hit long passes.

I don't know whether he can use backspin, in the manner of Graeme Souness or Kenny Dalglish, let alone Ian St John, but I have not seen him do it. He hits instead continuous overhead topspin, and the ball repeatedly runs away from his pursuing colleagues.

Certainly he is happier pushing forward in support of the attack, yesterday leaving the returning Dietmar Hamann to guard the back four. Yet there was still a lot of incoherence.

Houllier was reluctant to be critical, of team or individuals. "That was a good three points, but we didn't play well in the first half and didn't shy away from reality at half-time," he said. "In the second half there was more pressing on the ball and our substitutes [Vladimir Smicer, John Arne Riise and Danny Murphy] all brought something as contributors to the victory."

Gerrard, according to Houllier, should not be criticised at the age of 23. "He led by example, he brought impetus," the Frenchman said, "and I don't want to curb that tendency [to over-hit the ball]. If you explain or restrain a young player too much, you can lose something. We were a bit ugly at times, but I don't mind winning ugly."

Indeed, there was little for the Anfield crowd to acclaim, and, by the half-hour mark, Birmingham were taking a grip on the game. After a couple of near misses - Christophe Dugarry squandered the easiest when confronted only by Chris Kirkland - the visitors punished slack defending. A free kick by Robbie Savage evaded the defence and Forssell, unmarked on the far post, accepted the gift.

Almost immediately, there came the referee's gift for an alleged foul on Florent Sinama-Pongolle, a lightweight deputy in Liverpool's front line, and Gerrard duly scored from the penalty.

For a while at the start of the second half it was anybody's game, Liverpool's vigorous running starting to get the edge over Birmingham's rugged midfield challenge from Savage, David Dunn and Stephen Clemence.

The game was turned by a moment of sublime timing by Kewell. Within moments of coming on as substitute, Riise hit a long diagonal cross and Kewell, switching flanks throughout the game, swerved in from the right to score with a magnificent diving header.

That lifted both home team and crowd. In the next breath, Hamann's glancing header from a corner was cleared off the line by full-back Jamie Clapham - with Liverpool players claiming the ball was well across the line - and goalkeeper Ian Bennett turned an inswinging free kick from Gerrard over the bar.

Another long cross from the right, this time from Salif Diao, was chested down by Heskey beyond the far post and hooked home with aplomb - only his third League goal of the season. Kewell struck a post before the finish and Liverpool ended on a high that was less than convincing.

Match details

Liverpool: Kirkland, Diao, Biscan, Hyypia, Traore (Riise 67), Diouf (Smicer 55), Gerrard, Hamann, Kewell, Heskey, Sinama Pongolle (Murphy 79).
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Le Tallec.
Booked: Diao, Hamann.
Goals: Gerrard 35 pen, Kewell 69, Heskey 78.

Birmingham: Bennett, Johnson, Cunningham, Upson (Tebily 76), Clapham, Dunn, Savage, Clemence (Morrison 80), Lazaridis, Dugarry (Kirovski 79), Forssell.
Subs Not Used: Vaesen, Cisse.
Booked: Johnson.
Goals: Forssell 33.

Att: 42,683
Ref: N Barry (N Lincolnshire).

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