Funereal silence inside famous old stadiums is catching on. Not for the first time Titus Bramble left a crowd dumbfounded last night but, perhaps for the first time in the maligned defender's career, his pivotal contribution at Anfield was one for his manager to behold.
Six times Steve Bruce has faced Liverpool as a manager in the Premier League and six times he has avoided defeat, although a 7-0 humiliation suffered with Birmingham City in the FA Cup in March 2006 does blot his record somewhat. His latest league result earned Wigan Athletic their first point against a member of the "big four" in 21 attempts and lifted the club he joined in late November out of the relegation zone on goal difference.
In celebrating a significant point and the spirit of his players, however, the Wigan manager did not lose sight of the defender whose 80th-minute equaliser against Liverpool stunned hosts and visitors alike. "Titus has had some unfortunate treatment over the past few years but people forget how young he is," said Bruce of the 26-year-old. "He has played centre-half for a club that has qualified for the Champions League [Newcastle United] so he cannot be that bad a player, and if you give him back his confidence and belief he can emerge as a very good player."
One football manager's joy is another's absolute misery, of course, and for Rafael Benítez this was another tale of wasted opportunity, inconsistent performance and frustration. For a manager who continues to talk of his squad in championship terms, and whose American owners are demanding at least a shot at the title while tightening the transfer budget this month, this was a dispiriting start to 2008.
Until Bramble struck for the second time in two games Liverpool were comfortable if unconvincing and on course for another night spent indebted to Fernando Torres after his 16th goal of the season. A return of 10 points from four festive games, a tally comparable with Chelsea and Arsenal over the same period, would have augured well for Benítez's conviction that the second half of the campaign would witness a resurgent Liverpool. Instead the manager had to concede that 17 points from a possible 30 at Anfield this term - compared with 31 from 33 taken by Arsenal and Manchester United - has put title ambitions into cold perspective.
"It is clear the gap is bigger now but I have always said it is a long race and that we should think of only one game at a time," insisted the Liverpool manager. Pointedly, he added: "We need to forget about the gap now because if we think about it we will play under more pressure and we need to get back to playing well and winning games."
Benítez claimed Liverpool had played well here and but for a slice of luck in front of goal and the commanding Chris Kirkland they would have coasted to victory. But his disgusted reaction to Wigan's goal and later the final whistle told a more accurate story.
With Jermaine Pennant handed a surprise recall a little over two months since fracturing his shin the Liverpool manager deployed a three-prong attack in theory, but not in practice. No doubt motivated by Bruce's previous game plan at Anfield, when the then Birmingham manager left with a goalless draw, the Spaniard sought to stretch the Wigan rearguard but neither Pennant nor Harry Kewell was close enough to the £26.5m striker to provide the necessary support.
Benítez explained: "We wanted to use the wings, with Steven Gerrard coming through into the box, but we missed two or three clear chances. That was the key."
In fairness to Bruce, pragmatism is not a sin in Wigan's current predicament and the chants of both sets of supporters demonstrated the chasm in expectation. Whereas the Kop sang of winning the European Cup five times the travelling section responded with "The Auto Windscreens, we've won it two times". Alas that was the high point of a tepid opening half.
Torres was a continual threat despite being frequently isolated and he created two decent chances before the interval, one for Javier Mascherano and another for Gerrard, but the midfielders placed their efforts too close and too tamely to the former Liverpool keeper Kirkland. The first show of support for the Spanish striker came from Steve Finnan at the start of the second half and, from it, Liverpool edged ahead. The right-back started and accelerated a move which finished with Torres sweeping his neat pass into the Kop goal.
Gerrard almost doubled the lead with a free-kick which proved too powerful for Kirkland but which brought a vital interception from Bramble. The big defender's next impact was even more decisive. Emile Heskey was first to a Denny Landzaat free-kick and, when Gerrard made a hash of his clearance, Bramble pounced with a finish Torres would have been proud to claim as his own, sweeping the ball beyond José Reina from 12 yards.
Anfield fell silent. When the final whistle finally blew, with three Liverpool forwards on the pitch and no sign of a winner, the silence slowly gave way to jeers.
49' Torres 1-0
80' 1-1 Bramble
Jose Manuel Reina, Alvaro Arbeloa, Fabio Aurelio, Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard, Harry Kewell (Yossi Benayoun), Javier Mascherano (Peter Crouch), Jermaine Pennant (Dirk Kuyt), Fernando Torres
Chris Kirkland, Titus Bramble, Mario Melchiot, Paul Scharner, Ryan Taylor (Jason Koumas), Michael Brown, Kevin Kilbane, Denny Landzaat, Luis Antonio Valencia, Marcus Bent, Emile Heskey (Antoine Sibierski)
Referee: Bennett, S
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