Birmingham 1 – 1 Liverpool
By Mark Ashenden
Liverpool’s hopes of securing fourth spot and Champions League qualification suffered a big blow after a lacklustre draw at Birmingham.
In a dour first half, Maxi Rodriguez hit the bar for the Reds, while Roger Johnson headed over at the other end.
Liverpool took the lead when Steven Gerrard turned Lee Bowyer to curl in after Glen Johnson’s mis-hit pass.
Birmingham hit back as Liam Ridgewell bundled in James McFadden’s cross and survived three late David Ngog chances.
Starting the day five points adrift of fourth spot, a win for Liverpool was a must, but instead they relinquished a lead, no doubt to the delight of closest rivals Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa.
With an eye on Thursday’s Europa League tie with Benfica, Reds boss Rafael Benitez opted to rest Javier Mascherano and Daniel Agger and bring in Yossi Benayoun and Sotiros Kyrgiakos.
It was a risky strategy against a team riding high in ninth spot and unbeaten at St Andrew’s since September and Liverpool, again using Fernando Torres as a lone striker, seemed short of ideas and drive in the opening exchanges.
Their best efforts in the first half-hour were timid shots from Dirk Kuyt and Torres, while at the other end of a very sticky pitch, the skill of McFadden, making his 200th club career start, proved a regular nuisance for the visitors’ defence.
As the interval approached, the game finally woke from its slumbers with both teams having their best opportunities to break the deadlock.
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On the back of a swift four-man move, Torres curled the ball into Maxi eight yards out, but the Argentine could only crash his shot against the bar.
Desperate to pick up their first win in five league games, Birmingham’s tempo also increased and after an inswinging McFadden corner, Johnson headed just over as keeper Pepe Reina flapped uncharacteristically.
Liverpool’s slowly increasing pressure paid off just after the break, when Johnson mis-hit a shot over to Gerrard on the left, and he turned Bowyer inside out to curl a fine shot inside the far post.
The stage was there for Liverpool to dominate and boost their hopes of Champions League qualification, but instead the lead lasted just eight minutes and it was all down to the continuing tricks of McFadden.
The Scottish midfielder tip-toed around three defenders and curled in a delightful ball to the back post for the unmarked Ridgewell to bundle the ball in with his thigh.
Benitez reacted by bringing on Ngog for Torres, who walked off the pitch seemingly perplexed at his manager’s decision, while Gerrard also appeared to be a little confused.
However the substitution introduced new venom to the Liverpool attack and Ngog, the striker who won a controversial penalty against Birmingham in November, went close twice with a header and shot.
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The second half was proving to be a much livelier affair and Birmingham’s scorer almost turned provider as Ridgewell crossed into Bowyer from the left but the unmarked midfielder fluffed his volley.
Liverpool dictated proceedings in the final 15 minutes and should have scored a winner from one of their hatful of chances.
Maxi blasted the ball straight at his own player Alberto Aquilani, while Gerrard shot over from the edge of the box.
The England midfielder looked desperate to secure the three points and he set up Maxi with a stunning through-ball but the Argentine wasted his shot.
Benitez’s record of his team not beating Birmingham extends to eight games but the Spaniard’s thoughts will now move towards Benfica as hopes of qualifying for the Champions League perhaps begin to fade.