Liverpool pay penalty for lack of penetration
Published 12/02/2013 | 04:00
The Kop sang they'd have a party when Luis Suarez wins a penalty.
When it happened last night, their fiesta lasted barely 30 seconds as Ben Foster inspired a second consecutive league win at Anfield for West Bromwich Albion, Gareth McAuley's 81st-minute header and Romelu Lukaku's clinical finish swiftly following Steven Gerrard's saved spot-kick.
After an encouraging Premier League spell during which the possibility of catching the top four was back on the agenda for Liverpool, this defeat surely ended any further conversations on that subject.
Typical Liverpool, many will say. As soon as they look like they've turned the corner, it appears they drive into another cul-de-sac.
West Brom, however, will still have the top six in their sights after a hugely satisfying evening for their manager.
Steve Clarke suggested that Liverpool were playing a more creative brand of football than anyone in the league prior to kick-off. He also rather cheekily said that was down to the players Brendan Rodgers had been left by the previous regime, of which he was a key member.
If the visiting manager's flattery brought a sting in the tail, Clarke may have considered that his tentative move into the realm of mind games was having a desired impact at first.
The fluency Liverpool enjoyed away at Arsenal and Manchester City was lacking, West Brom's packed midfield denying space, while the reshuffle forced by Daniel Sturridge's absence was instantly disruptive as Luis Suarez was often isolated.
The most noticeable improvement at Anfield in recent weeks has been the ability of Liverpool to add bodies in the six-yard box, aiding and abetting Suerez's terror campaign, but the first half had rather more in common with the reconstructive early weeks of the season, when Rodgers' passing game seemed methodical rather than natural. There was too much pedestrian distribution and not enough width.
Clarke's decision to use Shane Long as a solo runner while defence and midfield stood firm suggested that some form of Liverpool wizardry would be required to break the stalemate.
Suarez always looked like he could provide it at a moment's notice, but you sensed this was one of those evenings when Liverpool would once more be too reliant on his imagination.
Liverpool began with a couple of ambitious volleys, the first from the Uruguayan striker on five minutes hopelessly wide, but four minutes later Glen Johnson showed his flair, forcing Foster into an unconvincing save.
Jonjo Shelvey tapped the ball in from close range but the offside flag was raised before the celebrations could start. Suarez then came to life with an extraordinary back-heeled cross on 20 minutes – if only a poacher had been there to take advantage – heralding a period of home pressure during which Stewart Downing tested Foster with a ferocious drive, and Daniel Agger twice wasted headed opportunities.
There was precious little else to excite the Kop before the interval, save for the anticipated adulation for the player making his 497th league appearance.
With respect to the Vatican, there was only one retirement anyone at Anfield was talking about. Jamie Carragher's retaining of his place at the expense of Martin Skrtel supported arguments that he may be prematurely ending his career.
Foster, a Titan in goal, denied Gerrard after a scramble at the Kop end three minutes into the second half, the home fans finally finding their voice. Jordan Henderson was close with the kind of audacious back-heel of which Suarez would be proud, Foster reacting smartly to save with his feet.
Liverpool now had the momentum they craved, with Carragher also going close with a looping header. West Brom's defence remained resolute, Clarke no doubt recognising the increasing frustration levels from his own spell in the Anfield dug-out last season.
Inevitable Liverpool changes came on the hour, with Fabio Borini and Rahim Sterling replacing Henderson and the ineffective Shelvey. Foster was getting busier, however. Borini thought he'd struck his first league goal for Liverpool with a dipping volley, the West Brom 'keeper making the save look more acrobatic than it needed to be.
When Suarez did find space, as he did on 70 minutes after Gerrard's pass, another defender – on this occasion McAuley – threw himself into a challenge. Foster displayed more of his best in the 72nd minute, somehow finding the strength to palm out a close-range Gerrard drive.
You sensed then the goal would never come for Liverpool but referee Jon Moss tried his best. He inexplicably gave Liverpool a penalty for a shove on Suarez by Jonas Olsson, but Gerrard missed from the spot and the closing stages ended in chaos for Rodgers' side and euphoria for the Baggies.
McAuley headed Chris Brunt's corner home in front of the West Brom fans and Lukaku struck in injury-time to complete a hugely satisfying smash-and-grab for Liverpool's former assistant manager. (© Daily Telegraph, London)