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Reds lack a knock-out punch

AND so continues one of the most curious records in Rafa Benitez’s Anfield reign – but what else did you expect when Birmingham’s visit was switched to a Monday night?

While Liverpool’s manager has savoured many famous triumphs in the 202 Premier League matches he has taken charge of, and claimed all the biggest scalps, the only team he has not beaten are the Blues from England’s second city.

What’s more, bizarrely, Benitez has never tasted success in a game on the first day of the working week here; throw into the equation that Birmingham had a striker by the same name in their ranks and, perhaps, it was inevitable Liverpool’s misery would continue.

Quite how that happened will be causing Benitez much consternation today; dominant in possession, determined in their work, Liverpool could have won in a canter; instead they required all their inner strength – and a slice of luck – to haul themselves off the canvas

It’s easy to harp on about bad luck or blame poor results on the fact fate has dealt a fickle hand but you only needed to see the way Liverpool began this contest, passing and moving with confidence, the difference a clearing sick bay made.

Take Glen Johnson. Prevented from playing at Fulham or in Lyon due to a torn calf muscle, he showed precisely what had been missing on the right side of the field with a couple of energetic, skilful forays to put the Reds on the front foot.

His main job, of course, is to stop goals but Johnson has shown with great regularity since arriving here that he is just as effective at creating them, his searing pace, superb control and shuffling feet are becoming increasingly potent weapons.

Try as they might, Birmingham found it almost impossible to put the shackles on Johnson in the opening exchanges and it was no surprise he was involved heavily in the move which enabled the Reds to poke their noses in front.

A terrific change of pace and some smart close control enabled Johnson to create a yard of space before delivering a cross that David Ngog smashed towards goal but Joe Hart worked wonders to keep that effort out, as he did with Dirk Kuyt’s follow up.

Albert Riera, though, showed great composure to keep the move alive and picked out Ngog, who applied the emphatic finish a baying Kop demanded – the only surprise was it took Liverpool 13 minutes.

True, the goal was not celebrated as wildly as Ngog’s previous strike at that end of the ground but it was just as well received in light of the three results since the young Frenchman put Manchester United out of their misery on October 25.

Ngog, clearly, is not Fernando Torres but he is improving all the time, starting to give the impression he will one day be an effective operator at this exalted level.

As he wheeled away to celebrate his fourth goal of the campaign, the thought of Liverpool trailing at half-time was utterly ludicrous but that, incredibly, was the situation in which they found themselves.

People can point the finger at Benitez all they want but what can he do when his defenders make the kind of mistakes that would have a League Two manager tearing his hair out?

With Jamie Carragher sat in the stands serving a suspension, it was inevitable Birmingham would look to expose any aerial failings in Liverpool’s armour but the manner of their equaliser was absurd.

James McFadden simply hung a free-kick up to the back post, Roger Johnson was put under no pressure as he flicked on, nor was Scott Dann, and, inevitably given his surname, Christian Benitez did the rest.

That goal completely took the wind out of Liverpool’s sails but worse, incredibly, was to follow. Quite why Martin Skrtel felt the need to play a head high ball to Steven Gerrard in first half injury time only he will know, but his decision was given maximum punishment.

Admittedly, Cameron Jerome’s strike was quite spectacular, a dipping volley which flew past Pepe Reina.

Whatever Benitez said in the dressing room, however, worked the oracle as the intensity of the Reds‘ movement was encouraging.

Ultimately, however, they could not find a killer instinct in the final third, a point proven by the fact Hart’s only saves of note in the second period were shots from distance by Lucas and Yossi Benayoun.

That the bleak scenario of a sixth Premier League defeat was avoided was thanks to referee Peter Walton adjudging Lee Carsley’s tackle on a Ngog to be illegal and pointing to the spot to give Liverpool a lifeline.

Whether they should have had the chance is open to debate as Ngog told Benitez no contact was made but Gerrard made no mistake from 12 yards yet it did not trigger the anticipated grandstand finish.

So frustrating. Three points were not just required to improve the position in the table – they were needed to ease everyone’s peace of mind and placate anxiety.

Instead we must hope those on international duty return unscathed and the injured few improve in time to face Manchester City. Fate, surely, can’t deal any more jokers – can it?

LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina; G Johnson, Skrtel, Agger, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas (Aquilani 82); Benayoun (Babel 77), Kuyt, Riera (Gerrard 45); Ngog.

BIRMINGHAM (4-4-2): Hart; Carr, R Johnson, Dann, Ridgewell; Larsson, Bowyer, Tainio (Carsley 15), McFadden (Vignal 67); Jerome, Benitez (McSheffrey 86). Goals - Ngog (13), Benitez (26), Jerome (45+2), Gerrard (71p).

Bookings - McFadden (64), Ngog (70) Carsley (70).

ATTENDANCE: 42,560.

REFEREE: Peter Walton.

Liverpool 2 – 2
(HT 1 – 2)
Birmingham City
N'Gog 13
Gerrard (pen) 71
Benitez 26
Jerome 45

Bookings N'Gog 71
McFadden 64
Carsley 71

Liverpool's Percentage Birmingham City's Percentage
Corners 11 91% 1 9%
Goal attempts 25 83% 5 17%
On target 7 77% 2 23%
Fouls 8 47% 9 53%
Offside 2 40% 3 60%

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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