There was a shudder to accompany the shake of the head from Rafael Benítez as he departed his technical area here, a reaction which betrayed a tired familiarity with disappointments such as this. Liverpool surrendered a 10-year unbeaten record against Blackburn Rovers yesterday and with it their longest undefeated streak of the season but, depressingly for their manager, old failings have reared to undermine them yet again: this defeat was their sixth on the road this season.
Benítez must have hoped occasions such as this were behind his team. Instead, after dominating from start to finish, the profligacy that cut the Merseysiders adrift of the title race earlier this campaign has ensured they awake this morning cast from the Champions League places. The visitors' ability to fluff the apparently unmissable left the locals tickled, if perplexed. "But we have seen this already this season," said the Spaniard wearily. "A lot of very clear attempts but we couldn't score. Then we make a mistake. Disappointing."
That was said with a sigh, though his players - and Peter Crouch in particular - may suffer a more rasping assessment. The England striker made his first Premiership start since the end of November and, benefiting from a sprightly supply-line down the right flank when Liverpool were at their most threatening, should have plundered a hat-trick. Yet, when he was substituted before the hour-mark, he was goalless and trudging with the demoralised shuffle of a man whose confidence has long since been shattered.
It is the towering Crouch's inability to convert with his head which baffles. Craig Bellamy crossed for the striker in the game's opening foray, with Steve Finnan twice repeating the trick later in the first half, only for Brad Friedel to set the tone with a trio of smart saves. None needed to be outstanding. The third miss, Crouch easing away from Andy Todd but only mustering a weak header which he could not squeeze beyond the American, was the most glaring. Given that Liverpool had conjured 13 goals from their four previous league games, none of which Crouch had started, this team will not put up with such feeble finishing for long.
The manager suggested as much in the aftermath. "I have to analyse why we didn't convert those chances," growled Benítez. "When you are in front of goal and have three clear headers, it's not down to a lack of confidence that they do not go in. Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe the goalkeeper was in the right position. But we are creating these chances for Peter.
"He was playing well and can give us a lot of things - he can win the ball in the air, and keep it - but now we have better strikers and they all need to compete for their position. If he's there on the end of chances that shows he is doing his job, but he needs to finish. If the other strikers are playing well and the team is winning and you are at a top side, that's something you need to know and manage."
Crouch was not the only visiting player culpable, with Bellamy - roundly booed on his Rovers return - denied a potential penalty before spearing wide, Dirk Kuyt unable to beat Friedel from inside the six-yard box and Xabi Alonso striking the post from distance. The Spaniard also forced the home goalkeeper into an astonishing save, tipping aside a volley, but when Luis Garcia struck Friedel from point-blank range, Liverpool were beaten. That chance prompted John Aldridge, commentating for local radio, to batter his desk in frustration. How Liverpool could have done with a finisher of his quality.
Blackburn had one and, today, boast the breathing space from the bottom three which the quality of their team warrants. Benni McCarthy can add a winning goal against Liverpool to his impressive first term in the Premiership, the South African converting Morten Gamst Pedersen's cross early in the second half after wonderful approach work from Tugay had bypassed Steven Gerrard in the build-up. The last time Liverpool had conceded in the league, some 689 minutes of action previously, Iain Dowie was still talking up his future at Charlton.
McCarthy's 10th goal of the season was celebrated as much with relief as delight. Rovers bask in a relatively giddy 15th place today, some four points from the bottom three, with this a first win in 17 against Liverpool. They might have edged ahead amid the visitors' flurry of first-half missed chances, Robbie Savage nodding David Bentley's cross wide when he should have scored. Thereafter, it was left to Friedel to exorcise the nightmarish memory of Saturday's 6-2 defeat at Arsenal.
"Brad was magnificent and pulled out some crucial saves," said Mark Hughes. "He commanded his box and was an inspiration. Everyone grew because of his presence out there, but there were some big performances in front of him, too. We all have to play to our absolute maximum, and that's what we did. We're a side that can't carry anybody."
Man of the match: Brad Friedel
49' McCarthy 1-0
Brad Friedel, Lucas Neill, Andre Ooijer, Andy Todd, David Bentley (Aaron Mokoena), Brett Emerton, Morten Gamst Pedersen, Robbie Savage, Kerimoglu Tugay (Stephane Henchoz), Benni McCarthy, Shabani Nonda (Matt Derbyshire)
Jose Manuel Reina, Daniel Agger, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypia, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Mark Gonzalez (Fabio Aurelio), John Arne Riise, Craig Bellamy (Javier Sanz Luis Garcia), Peter Crouch (Dirk Kuyt)
Referee: Styles, R
Venue: Ewood Park
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited