Liverpool 0 West Brom 2
By JAMES PEARCE
THE ‘Seeing is Believing’ slogan on the front of Liverpool’s shirts seemed strangely appropriate. As disconsolate and angry Kopites walked away from Anfield they struggled to comprehend what they had just witnessed. This was a night which defied belief as Brendan Rodgers’ side effectively surrendered any interest in the race for Champions League qualification. The smattering of boos at the final whistle told the sorry story as the wasteful hosts somehow allowed West Brom, who have been in freefall for the past two months, to depart with the spoils. After recent performances against Arsenal and Manchester City had fuelled hopes of a grandstand finish to the campaign, this wretched defeat was a desperate step backwards. How Liverpool missed Daniel Sturridge who was ruled out with a thigh injury. In his absence, it was a throwback to the dark days earlier in the campaign when Liverpool dominated matches but were toothless in the final third. A host of chances went begging and Steven Gerrard saw his penalty saved by Ben Foster before even a share of the spoils was taken away from the hosts. Liverpool’s Achilles heel of defending set-pieces struck once again as Gareth McAuley was allowed to head home unchallenged in the 81st minute and then substitute Romelu Lukaku rubbed salt into the wounds. There was just one change to the side which drew 2-2 at Manchester City as Sturridge was ruled out with a thigh injury. Rodgers opted to put his faith in Jonjo Shelvey who was handed his first league start since the defeat at Stoke on Boxing Day. Liverpool stamped their authority on the contest early on with Luis Suarez firing wide from the edge of the box after pouncing on Liam Ridgewell’s error. Dropping off into the space between the Baggies’ back four and midfield, Shelvey was a central figure as he linked up play intelligently. The young England international was clearly desperate to impress and in the ninth minute he reacted smartly to convert the rebound after Ben Foster had failed to hold Glen Johnson’s sweetly-struck volley. However, Shelvey’s celebrations were swiftly and rightly curtailed by the offside flag and it set the tone for a frustrating opening 45 minutes. Steven Gerrard dragged a 25-yarder wide as the Reds slowly cranked up the pressure. The passing was slick and when the hosts weren’t in possession, they worked tirelessly to press the Baggies high up the pitch and win it back. Pepe Reina was largely a spectator but at the other end moments of real promise yielded nothing as the final ball was lacking. Midway through the first half Suarez brought the Anfield Road End to their feet as he raced past Jonas Olsson and then swung his right boot around the back of his left leg to deliver an audacious cross into the area. Youssouf Mulumbu shovelled the ball to safety and the Baggies remained pinned back in their own half. This was Stewart Downing’s 11th successive Premier League start and the winger maintained the form which has allowed him to save his Liverpool career. Downing tormented Ridgewell at times down the right – demonstrating the kind of confidence which was missing from his insipid displays earlier in the campaign. Daniel Agger went close to breaking the deadlock when he rose to meet Downing’s in-swinging corner but Foster tipped his header over the bar. Downing then drifted inside off the flank with menace and unleashed a 30-yard piledriver which the keeper unconvincingly gathered at the second attempt. The Baggies were clinging on but they continued to repel the Reds’ advances. Suarez was tireless, darting into the channels at every opportunity and stretching the visitors’ backline. Glen Johnson picked him out with one neat pass but before the Uruguayan could pull the trigger Olsson slid in to force the ball behind. Liverpool played the corner shot with Downing whipping in another enticing delivery but the unmarked Agger couldn’t provide the decisive touch. Four minutes before the interval West Brom enjoyed a major let-off. Shelvey did brilliantly to get the better of Gareth McAuley and advance to the byline. His drilled low cross was met by Steven Reid whose hurried clearance looped just over his own bar. From the ensuing corner, Suarez went down after a shove from McAuley but referee Jon Moss waved away appeals for a penalty. Liverpool’s stranglehold on proceedings continued in the second half. A sweeping counter-attack saw Downing and Johnson link up expertly down the right and the full-back’s cross was swept goalwards by Jordan Henderson. To the resurgent midfielder’s dismay, Foster stuck out a boot and diverted it away. Jamie Carragher, who was afforded a warm ovation before kick-off following the announcement of his retirement in May, could have ended his four-and-a-half year wait for a goal but couldn’t divert his header from Downing’s corner on target. Having started brightly, Shelvey’s contribution waned dramatically and it was no surprise when he was taken off on the hour mark. Henderson also departed as Rodgers introduced Fabio Borini and Raheem Sterling in a bid to find a cutting edge. Borini almost provided it as he latched on to Downing’s neat lay-off but his fierce drive was held by Foster. The substitutions improved Liverpool and the chances kept on coming with only the heroics of Foster keeping Liverpool at bay. The keeper produced a stunning one-handed stop to thwart Gerrard who had burst on to Sterling’s pass. Borini slid in for the rebound but could only poke it into the side-netting. With 13 minutes to go Anfield erupted. Moss pointed to the spot following Olsson’s nudge in Suarez’s back but the Reds’ joy was shortlived. Gerrard took responsibility but Foster threw himself to his left to push his penalty to safety. Rodgers handed Brazilian new boy Philippe Coutinho his debut in place of Downing but in the 81st minute Liverpool were left shellshocked. In a rare foray forward, Mulumbu’s drive was tipped over by Reina. Chris Brunt whipped the resulting corner into the box and McAuley punished some dismal marking as he rose to head home from four yards out. The Reds’ misery was complete late on when Agger allowed Lukaku to get away from him and the Belgian finished in style. LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Enrique, Lucas, Gerrard, Downing (Coutinho 78), Shelvey (Borini 60), Henderson (Sterling 60), Suarez. Not used: Jones, Allen, Skrtel, Wisdom.
WEST BROM (4-1-4-1): Foster, Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell, Yacob, Dorrans (Lukaku 74), Mulumbu, Morrison, Brunt, Long (Fortune 87). Not used: Myhill, Rosenberg, Jones, Tamas, Thomas.