Liverpool stake their claim

Liverpool took a firmer grip yesterday on the Premiership's valuable fourth place. Goals from Michael Owen, Emile Heskey and Steven Gerrard reflected the Merseysiders' overwhelming superiority, brought them a comfortable win from a potentially difficult away fixture and eliminated Aston Villa, on goal difference, from the three-cornered battle for Champions League qualification.

More than ever now, it looks as though occupancy of that fourth place will be decided when Newcastle visit Anfield on the final day of the Premier League season next Saturday. First, of course, the Magpies have to beat Wolverhampton Wanderers at St James' Park today, then get something from their midweek trip to Southampton.

Boosted by Villa's failure to win at Southampton, Liverpool took the game to Birmingham from the start. Three times in the opening 16 minutes they went close to taking the lead. First, Owen was just short of getting a touch when Heskey pulled Danny Murphy's through pass across the face of goal. Then Kenny Cunningham did well to block Heskey's shot as he turned on Harry Kewell's through pass.

Finally, centre-back Sami Hyypia skimmed the bar with a rising shot from 25 yards. Birmingham did not mount a dangerous attack of their own until the 21st minute. It nearly brought a goal, Jerzy Dudek stretching to tip the ball over the bar when Stephen Clemence dinked a pass through to Clinton Morrison, who shot firmly on the turn.

Back came Liverpool to trouble the Birmingham defence again two minutes later. Owen looked certain to score from close range when Heskey knocked the ball down to him but Ian Bennett managed to smother the shot. The ball ran loose behind Birmingham's reserve goalkeeper, however, and looked as though it might trickle over the line until Bennett recovered in time to snatch it away from Heskey.

The next time Heskey and Owen combined, five minutes on, Liverpool scored. Heskey found Owen with a pass down the inside-left channel and the England striker simply had too much pace for the challenging Cunningham. Scooting past the Republic of Ireland international and taking the ball right up to Bennett, Owen coolly slipped it into the far corner as the goalkeeper came out to block his progress at the near post.

Liverpool increased their lead six minutes into the second half. A thrilling goal it was, too. Kewell started it with a pass that Owen back-flicked to Gerrard. The Liverpool captain then made ground rapidly down the inside-left channel before feeding Heskey a pass the striker rammed in so hard from close range that the ball rebounded out to the penalty spot.

When Birmingham made wholesale changes on the hour, it was hard to tell whether manager Steve Bruce was just trying to ginger up his team or throwing in the towel. It certainly did nothing to alter the balance of power, Cunningham being sent off after 64 minutes for hauling down Gerrard as he threatened to run clear in pursuit of John Arne Riise's through ball.

Finding acres of space among Birmingham's 10 men, Liverpool ought to have scored at least twice more in the last 26 minutes.

Gerrard, by some distance the man of the match, showed how it should be done when, five minutes from the end, he closed in on goal from the left and found the far corner of the net.

Match details

Birmingham: Bennett, Tebily, Cunningham, Upson, Clapham (John 59), Johnson, Savage (Hughes 59), Clemence (Cisse 59), Lazaridis, Forssell, Morrison.
Subs Not Used: Doyle, Martin Taylor.
Sent Off: Cunningham (64).
Booked: Johnson, Cisse.

Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Murphy, Gerrard, Hamann, Kewell, Heskey, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Baros, Sinama Pongolle, Biscan, Cheyrou, Luzi Bernardi.
Goals: Owen 29, Heskey 51, Gerrard 86.

Att: 29,553
Ref: S Dunn (Gloucestershire).

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