Controlling play from first whistle to last, but still no joy

Liverpool were held to a frustrating draw by Birmingham City in a match which they dominated on Monday evening. A contentious penalty, won by David N’Gog and scored by Steven Gerrard, salvaged a point for the Reds after they had somehow transpired to fall 2-1 behind in a game which they virtually controlled from the first whistle to the last.

Having taken an early lead through the impressive N’Gog it appeared the Reds would secure the comfortable win which the club and the fans craved. But astonishingly Birmingham were able to hit back twice, first through Christian Benitez and then a stunning Cameron Jerome strike, to lead 2-1 at the interval. Gerrard converted his second half penalty to level the scores, but Liverpool’s dominance could have, and should have, earned much more than a point.

The Reds recent injury crisis was appeased some what prior to kick-off, as Rafa Benitez welcomed back Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and Albert Riera to his starting line-up. Steven Gerrard was also fit enough for a place on the bench. Although Fernando Torres’s fitness will again be of concern as the Spaniard was omitted from the match day squad. Torres’s replacement, N’Gog, however, again showed encouraging signs of progress and improvement. The young French striker perhaps cementing his right as first choice back-up to Torres, with a threatening performance which included the opening goal.

N’Gog was also involved in another pivotal moment in the game when he was controversially awarded a 70th minute penalty by referee Peter Walton. There appeared to have been little contact with Lee Carsley in the Birmingham box, but in fairness Liverpool’s domineering performance probably deserved a draw at the very least.

A lack of solidity and consistence through the middle of the team, for so long the foundation of success under Benitez, has been the key problem for Liverpool this season. This is particularly evident in defence, previously so reliable and impenetrable, were regular mistakes and uncertainty has served to undermine the Reds system. The situation also has not been helped by a new partnership between Javier Mascherano and Lucas taking time to flourish, as well as Alberto Aquilani, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres being unavailable for lengthy periods further forward.

With Jamie Carragher unavailable through suspension, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger were granted the rare opportunity to partner each other in the centre of defence. Skrtel’s form has been below par this season, although Agger’s return to fitness and form has been one of the few positives of late. However the Reds play was once again undermined by some unsure defending, as Blues were able to score from 2 of the 3 genuine attacks which they were able to create in the match.

Liverpool should have dealt with James McFadden’s free-kick to the far post after 26 minutes. Instead, both Roger Johnson and Scott Dann were able to win headers before Benitez nodded beyond Pepe Reina from close range, to gift the away side an equaliser against the run of play.

Up until that point Rafa’s men had comfortably controlled proceedings and had been rewarded with N’Gog’s 12th minute opener. Glen Johnson, who was a potent threat all evening on his return from injury, created the goal. His trademark mazy run from full-back took him past 2 defenders before pulling the ball back to N’Gog. The strikers initial effort was palmed away by Joe Hart, but, after Hart had again denied Dirk Kuyt from the follow-up, Albert Reira’s ball across the goal mouth was excellently smashed beyond the keeper on the volley by N’Gog.

The Reds were in control, without threatening the Birmingham goal too regularly. The game was practically being played out in the Blues half, with the away side unable to mount a serious attack during the opening exchanges. However Benitez’s shock equaliser changed the complexion of the match. Liverpool continued to exert concerted pressure on the Birmingham defence. Hart was forced to tip over Mascherano’s 25-yard drive. Before Lucas should have done far better with his tame effort at goal when he found himself with time and space in the penalty area following a goal mouth scramble.

But when Jerome was able to shrug of the attention of Mascherano and send a spectacular shot from distance over Reina and under the cross bar, the Reds found themselves in a familiarly desperate situation, trailing at half time.

Benitez had been forced to introduce Gerrard prematurely just before the interval, as Reira suffered a fresh injury problem. He was to be followed by Yossi Benayoun soon after, with a similar hamstring problem. Gerrard’s introduction gave Liverpool an added impetus as they strived for a route back into the match.

The Reds piled the pressure on a Birmingham defence which defended resolutely in the second period. Mascherano and Lucas were dominating midfield. Lucas in particular was impressive, putting in one of his most assured and effective performances to date. The Brazilian was perhaps somewhat unlucky to be replaced by home debutant Aquilani in the closing stages.

Liverpool’s concerted pressure was almost rewarded when another potent Johnson cross was headed against the foot of the post by Gerrard with the goal at his mercy. Liverpool, and Gerrard in particular, were a constant threat, despite nursing a groin injury. And the hosts finally profited from their perseverance after 71 minutes, albeit in controversial circumstances. The Birmingham players protested vigorously when referee Walton pointed to the spot after N’Gog went down close to the touch line, having done well to work his way into the area. However the penalty stood and Gerrard confidently sent Hart the wrong way to convert.

Gerrard and his team mates were in no mood to celebrate the equaliser and looked for a quick restart as they searched for a vital winner. A reinvigorated Anfield crowd spurred on the home side as they continued to pile on the pressure. N’Gog came closest to a winner when his first time effort flew just wide of the post following Gerrard’s driving run.

But the Reds were unable to salvage a winner as Rafa’s poor league record against the Midlands club continued. This disappointing draw leaves Liverpool struggling in 7th position in the Premier League heading into another international break. Benitez must now hope that his injured charges can regain fitness in time to begin the task of resurrecting their season, starting with Manchester City at home in under 2 weeks time.