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Third time lucky for Liverpool

KENNY DALGLISH returned to his old haunt of Blackburn talking darkly of refereeing conspiracies. He would have left Ewood Park wondering whether Howard Webb would be warming up for Saturday's FA Cup semi-final from behind a grassy knoll.

The Liverpool manager was already resigned to facing Everton without Pepe Reina, but then his second-choice goalkeeper, Alexander Doni, was shown a red card. Frankly, he was lucky not to lose his third, Brad Jones. Tussling with Yakubu after the forward had charged down his clearance with his backside, the Australian pushed the striker over.

The penalty was a formality but Ewood screamed for a second red card. Instead, it was yellow and the possibility of a frantic telephone call to Ray Clemence to ask if he was doing anything much on Saturday receded. What saved Jones was the fact that the ball was bouncing away from his goal.

For Jones, an Australian with a passion for Aussie Rules, his time at Liverpool had been frustrating on the pitch and heart-rending off it. In November, his son, Luca, died from leukaemia at the age of five. On the final whistle, he dedicated an extraordinary victory to his boy's memory. This week his partner gave birth to a baby son, called Nico. He will remember these past few days.

It was a win snatched by Andy Carroll, a man who has endured the brunt of criticism that has washed over Anfield as their league season has stumbled and spluttered.

Dalglish refused point blank to discuss the refereeing decisions but his opposite number, Steve Kean, was not so inhibited. It was, said the Blackburn manager, “a cruel ending” made crueller by the fact that Carroll was only played onside because Grant Hanley and Martin Skrtel had been scrapping with each other on the byline – meaning Hanley was out of position when Carroll went to meet Daniel Agger's header.

“I thought after we got the equaliser, it was all us,” he said.

Nevertheless, for Kean this was an ominous fourth successive defeat, less than a month after Blackburn looked to be easing towards safety.

Returning to the ground where, in 1995, he had steered a club awash with money to the title – which as Manchester City have discovered is not as easy as it sounds – Dalglish observed: “It doesn't mean to say we have turned a corner.”

However, an astonishing victory, achieved with 10 men, did put an end to the worst run of his career. The only comparable period was his only full season at Newcastle United, which finished with an FA Cup final appearance. He lost that game, but at least he had a choice of goalkeepers.

The first breakout of the match stemmed from a Blackburn free-kick that was driven out with superb accuracy by Skrtel a couple of paces in front of his own six-yard box to Craig Bellamy.

At 32, Bellamy’s pace and passion remain undimmed and he took the ball and tore down Blackburn's exposed left flank, crossing the ball low and perfectly for Maxi Rodriguez to put Liverpool ahead.

Blackburn's defending was non-existent.

Since he arrived from Atletico Madrid to join Rafael Benitez's disintegrating regime, Rodriguez has scored goals without ever establishing himself in the Liverpool side.

Three minutes later, he had his |second goal. Again, there was no suggestion that Kean had chosen anyone to hold the centre of midfield together as Jonjo Shelvey dispossessed David Dunn and drove forward. His shot ought to have been saved rather |than parried away by Paul Robinson. Carroll's attempt to seize on the rebound was blocked but the ball spun out to Rodriguez and the man from Lionel Messi's home city of Rosario did the rest.

Liverpool's control was total; then it was gone. The catalyst was a dreadful back-pass from Jon Flanagan.

Junior Hoilett seized upon it and as Doni advanced to meet it, he committed himself and the striker almost fell over his body. It was a penalty and a red card. The Italian looked distraught and, frankly, you felt for him. He had waited all season for his chance and had been given a shot at the FA Cup semi-final by Reina's dismissal at Newcastle.

Now that had been snatched from him and he lingered an age by the Liverpool fans before making his way off.


Thus, Jones, Liverpool's third-choice goalkeeper, made his way on to the pitch to face a penalty. Flanagan, mercifully, made way. There are various ways to describe how Yakubu took it but ‘rubbish’ will suffice. It trundled across the ground towards Jones who gathered rather than saved it.

“What was going through my mind?” said Jones. “Many a Friday on the training pitches at Middlesbrough when we used to practise penalties together. I knew his style and what he was |likely to do.”

However, when he faced his second penalty of the night, Yakubu chose to strike it into the dead centre of the Liverpool goal to bring the sides level.

Ten minutes after he had squandered the first penalty, Yakubu had proved himself rather more effective at set-pieces when he rose unmarked at the far post to head home Dunn's |free-kick to bring a breathless night even more vividly to life.