Benitez's guarantee rocked by Rodallega
Wigan 1 Liverpool 0
RAFA BENITEZ'S "guarantee'' of fourth place all but fell off Wigan Pier last night. Liverpool were poor, deservedly slumping to their first ever defeat to Wigan, whose win was secured by Hugo Rodallega.
Full of running and belief, Roberto Martinez's side made a mockery of their 16th place at start of play.
In rising to 14th, Wigan were indebted to some immense displays by their central midfielders, Mohamed Diame and especially Irish teenager James McCarthy, who thoroughly outplayed Steven Gerrard.
Wigan were not the only winners. Liverpool's rivals for fourth, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Aston Villa, will have relished watching Benitez's side falter.
None of Liverpool's major players delivered with Fernando Torres and Gerrard particularly disappointing, although they did have the consolation of Glen Johnson's welcome return.
Liverpool were as weak as Wigan were strong.
In a lively, open game, Wigan's pace had troubled Liverpool from the start, Charles N'Zogbia and the left-sided Rodallega flying down the flanks to good effect, testing Javier Mascherano, filling in again at right-back, but particularly Emiliano Insua.
After Liverpool had threatened an early breakthrough when Torres hit a post from Maxi Rodriguez's knockdown, Wigan stormed into the visitors, building inexorably towards Rodallega's first goal in 13 games.
Martinez's side were sharper to the ball, playing with greater tempo, their desire embodied by the vibrant young midfielder McCarthy, who patently relished the task of taking on England's most recent captain, Gerrard.
N'Zogbia embarked on a great run, tying Insua up in knots, and Liverpool were rescued only by Jamie Carragher's quick reactions in scuttling across to clear up. Rodallega wriggled through the centre, his progress ended illegally by Lucas, who endured a wretched first half.
Rodallega failed to get sufficient dip on his free-kick which flew well over -- much to the relief of the huge contingent of Liverpool support gathered behind Pepe Reina's goal.
Worried about leaving space behind them, Carragher and Sotirios Kyrgiakos dropped deeper and deeper, simply inviting Wigan on. Only an immaculate interception by Mascherano stopped another McCarthy surge.
Another Argentine was less composed, Insua clattering his high-speed tormentor, N'Zogbia.
Liverpool looked to their familiar leaders to lift them. Until moving into the centre after the break, replacing the anonymous Lucas, Mascherano shone at right-back, showing pace and purpose down the wing.
Gerrard attempted to find a way through, presented with a chance following some fine approach work by Yossi Benayoun. Slightly off-balance, Gerrard skewed his shot wide. It reflected a first-half malaise.
Liverpool were too weak in possession, any ambition tempered by the alacrity with which Wigan closed them down.
Gerrard hardly had time to breathe, let alone settle on the ball. McCarthy, particularly, hounded him.
When Dirk Kuyt then dropped deep, trying to relieve the pressure, Wigan simply harried him into submission. When the Dutchman gifted the ball to Emmerson Boyce, Wigan scented blood. Their ability to move the ball quickly had already threatened Liverpool significant pain and here they pounced to devastating effect.
Boyce swiftly transferred the ball into the box and there was Rodallega sending it past Pepe Reina. It was not the most elegant strikes of the Colombian's career but it felt one of the most precious.
Liverpool were completely out of sorts, their mood not assisted by a filthy challenge by Titus Bramble on Torres that received yellow but could have earned red. Luckily for Torres, his studs were out of the ground.
Yet Liverpool could also have lost a player. Insua, already cautioned, could have gone for a foul on McCarthy.
Liverpool almost levelled just before the break but Torres misjudged Maxi's cross. Benitez tried to shake his team up, bringing on Johnson for Lucas and moving Mascherano into midfield, giving Liverpool a bit more bite against McCarthy.
Yet still Wigan menaced, almost adding a second when Reina's clearance hit Marcelo Moreno, the ball looping goalwards, forcing Kyrgiakos into an emergency clearance.
As Liverpool fans chanted "attack, attack, attack'', Benitez's men sought to respond. Johnson, encouragingly, settled swiftly, showing his aptitude for driving down the right.
Liverpool at last looked more of a cohesive unit, particularly with Mascherano now bringing some venom to midfield. From one buccaneering run through the middle, Mascherano released Torres, who twisted inside but found his path blocked by Maynor Figueroa.
Torres was then woefully wide with a volley which dribbled apologetically out for a throw.
Benitez rang the changes again, introducing Alberto Aquilani for Benayoun and ushering Gerrard forward.
Wigan, seemingly tiring, hit back, given energy by their dynamic substitute, Victor Moses, and forcing a succession of corners. With Wigan pushed forward, Liverpool sprung a counter, Insua hoisting over a cross that Kuyt headed back to Torres, whose volley flashed wide.
Some frustration began to seep into Liverpool hearts, Torres earning a caution for catching Diame.
Gerrard followed him into the book, taking man and ball with a challenge on McCarthy. It reflected McCarthy's -- and Wigan's -- superiority on the night. (© Daily Telegraph, London)