Sunday, 12 September 2010

Birmingham 0 Liverpool 0: Pepe Reina to the rescue for Roy Hodgson's rabble

By Matt Lawton Chief Football Correspondent at St Andrew's

Under pressure: Pepe Reina gets his glove to the ball before Birmingham striker Cameron Jerome

It has been 13 months since Roy Hodgson last tasted victory away from home in the Barclays Premier League and, judging by this, it could be a good while longer yet.
Especially when Manchester United come next.

His Liverpool team appear to be travelling as badly as a Fulham side that won away only once in the League last season, their failure even to begin to trouble Birmingham at St Andrew's a real concern for the new Anfield manager.

Hodgson remained relatively calm afterwards, citing the fact that these are still early days; that these things can happen at the end of an international week; that Birmingham deserved credit for playing as well as they did, not least in defence where Alex McLeish has organised them magnificently.

But it already seems Hodgson has his work cut out if he is to improve on the seventh place Liverpool achieved under Rafa Benitez in May.

They might continue to possess real quality in the likes of Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Jamie Carragher but too many of the players who now stand alongside them simply don't appear good enough to be representing a team with serious designs on the Champions League.

Lucas Leiva and Christian Poulsen looked so inferior to their more immediate predecessors. The central midfield pairing of Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano was as good as any in the Premier League. The same cannot be said of these two, who were not even a match for Craig Gardner and Barry Ferguson.

For Gerrard and Torres it became utterly dispiriting and the apparent inability of their colleagues to pass the ball with any kind of fluency caused real frustration among the forward pairing. In the end Gerrard decided to drop deeper, if only to get more involved and inject a bit of urgency into Liverpool's football.

He may have also lost a bit of patience with Torres, who for all the faults of his less gifted teammates also had something of a horror. When fit and in form, he is among the finest strikers in the world, as he proved during his first season at Anfield.

Race is on: James McFadden runs with the ball as Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher tries to keep up

On this evidence he is still short of both, the sight of him shooting wildly from the tightest of angles when Gerrard was accelerating towards the edge of the six-yard box pretty much summing up his afternoon.

Gerrard threw his hands into the air in exasperation, and one wonders if both of them might now regret not moving on when they had the chance. Torres seems far from happy, judging by his body language.

Right now there are no such concerns at Birmingham. They were much the better side going forward, too, and had it not been for Reina they would have won this comfortably.

Benitez never beat Birmingham in the League and Hodgson may now appreciate why because McLeish and his men certainly had the measure of Liverpool this time.

After an opening 20 minutes memorable only for the sight of Torres shooting weakly and Gerrard sustaining a nasty cut to his ear in a collision with Ferguson, Birmingham really started to apply some pressure.

A super cross from Lee Bowyer was met by Cameron Jerome with an excellent header, but Reina somehow conjured a save as good as any he will make this year.

Head case: Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard had to be bandaged after taking a knock to the skull

Gardner then met a ball from Sebastian Larsson with a shot that looped over the crossbar and Reina excelled again in denying Jerome for a second time, intercepting a cross from Larsson just as Birmingham's striker prepared to unleash another header.

What followed was just as impressive, Reina producing the third such save to stop a Gardner header that owed much to the quality of the cross from Stephen Carr.

There was further disappointment for Birmingham when Roger Johnson failed to convert a fine delivery from the excellent Ferguson. In fairness to Johnson, he did all that was asked of him in defence alongside Scott Dann.

Battler: Birmingham's Craig Gardner and Liverpool midfielder Lucas get stuck in during a hard-fought clash

The uncertainty in Liverpool's defensive ranks continued after the break, the arrival of Paul Konchesky doing little to raise standards at the back. A teasing free-kick from Larsson was allowed to bounce behind the back four, only just clearing an exposed Reina's bar.

Only when Gerrard dropped into a more central role did Liverpool begin to gain some momentum but even then the better chances fell to Birmingham.

While Reina remained on alert, Ben Foster enjoyed one of his easier days at the opposite end. He denied Gerrard and Torres but his goal was not often threatened.

Jerome cursed his luck when he then directed a header wide, when he really should have scored, leaving Birmingham to reflect on this encounter not so much as a point gained but a major opportunity lost.

They continue to grow under the management of McLeish, and had they secured the three points they deserved they would have been among the Champions League places this morning - the kind of territory Liverpool used to occupy but not at the moment and not any time soon, given the way they have started this campaign.

They were awful at Manchester City, and hugely disappointing here too. Next stop Old Trafford.

source: dailymail

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