Win fails to paper over cracks
Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. Liverpool's Wembley warm-up consisted of an evening of engrossing ineptitude on as strange a game as even they, and even the beleaguered Blackburn Rovers, have endured in their surreal seasons. It concluded in suitably peculiar fashion as the outnumbered, the out of favour and the out of position somehow contrived to earn only a second win in ten league games.
Daniel Agger, the central defender who was standing in at left-back, leapt high to win a header, which Andy Carroll, the £35 million striker who had become an ersatz holding midfielder in the final few minutes, powered past Paul Robinson. Their ten remaining men also included the third-choice goalkeeper Brad Jones; the £20 million midfielder deputising at right-back, Jordan Henderson; and the regular left-back who made a brief appearance on the wing, Jose Enrique. They celebrated raucously. Injury-time winners, especially against the odds, have that capacity to revive flagging spirits and restore lost optimism. "I'm not going to say we've turned any corners, but it gives everybody a lift," Kenny Dalglish said, enjoying his return to the other English club where he is accorded legendary status.
Yet on a logic-defying night, the only definitive conclusion provided was that Blackburn Rovers' self-destructive tendencies are pronounced and potentially costly. For Liverpool, this was an escape in more ways than one: a competent, well-managed team would have condemned them to a seventh defeat in nine league games. A different interpretation of the laws would have left them without a senior goalkeeper for Saturday's FA Cup semi-final with Everton.
To lose one may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness. To lose all three in the space of as many games would be extraordinary and yet seemed very possible for a few seconds.
With Pepe Reina already suspended for his sending-off at Newcastle, with Alexander Doni dismissed in the first half, Jones endured his own brush the authorities. Like Doni before him, he felled a Rovers striker in the penalty area. This time, with the ball going away from goal, referee Anthony Taylor opted for the lesser punishment and booked the goalkeeper. "I can understand why he has not sent the goalie off," Blackburn manager Steve Kean said, "because the referee thinks the ball is going to spin to a Liverpool player and he doesn't think it is a goal-scoring opportunity."
His fellow Glaswegian was rather more reticent. "I'm not going to sit here and start talking about contentious decisions," Dalglish here. "Once I've seen them, I'll be better educated, which isn't hard." Jones' initial contribution was to save Yakubu's tame penalty with his first touch of the ball in the league as a Liverpool player - "he had a wee bit of a psychological advantage, because the two of them had been at Middlesbrough together," Dalglish added - but the Australian nonetheless contrived to spread panic in his defence.
His kicking, David Moyes' scouts presumably noted, was unconvincing in the extreme. Indeed, Yakubu charged down a clearance before Jones first flapped and then pushed the Nigerian for a second penalty which, unlike the first, the Nigerian converted. He had already headed in a David Dunn free-kick as Blackburn, who had been 2-0 down, brought themselves level.
Reina's original deputy, Doni, had waited eight months for a league game and then seen his second ended early. After a dreadful backpass from Jon Flanagan, who should have been sent off and was then substituted in a cameo of unfortunate cluelessness, Yakubu fell over the goalkeeper's challenge, each appearing to be acting in slow motion.
Jones' subsequent struggles prompted talk of the alternatives for Liverpool - whether Peter Gulacsi can be recalled from loan, whether Danny Ward or 17-year-old Tyrell Belford will sit on the bench, whether they can bring someone in on emergency loan or whether (the facetious suggestion) Enrique will don the gloves again. "I don't know the rules," Dalglish admitted.
But if a forgotten figure is in the squad for the Merseyside derby, an overlooked one stated his case for inclusion at Ewood Park. Maxi Rodriguez's goals a year ago helped get Dalglish his job. His reward has been a watching brief, but his rare outings have still been more productive than the combined efforts of Henderson, Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam. Two goals in three minutes served as proof of the Argentine's predatory instinct, as well as of Blackburn's dismal defending.
First, deliberately and precisely, Martin Skrtel angled a 50-yard pass from his own penalty area to the utterly unmarked Craig Bellamy. The former Rover sped clear and centred accurately for Maxi to finish at the far post. His second came from a similar position after Jonjo Shelvey was allowed to run 40 yards unchallenged and, after he and Carroll shot, Rodriguez finished.
Thereafter the closest a Liverpool came to scoring was when Jones prevented Carroll's header from entering his own net. Until, with Blackburn complaining that Skrtel had tugged Grant Hanley down, the most expensive Englishman ever scored a belated fourth league goal of the season. His strikes are rare occurrences but normality and Liverpool parted company quite some time ago.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Craig Bellamy. Brought pace, purpose and penetration to Liverpool, working furiously hard to help compensate for their numerical disadvantage and bringing quality as well as combativity. He deserves to start at Wembley, but he has deserved to start rather more often this season.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: Much as Kean complained about Liverpool's winner, this was a huge missed opportunity. Playing against ten men for 65 minutes, awarded two penalties and with Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez among the prominent absentees, they still could not capitalise.
The omission of Morten Gamst Pedersen may have been a crowd-pleasing move by Kean but the Norwegian was missed; Gael Givet, another unused replacement, is surely superior to Scott Dann in defence. But Blackburn have conceded plenty of late goals and too many set-piece goals this season and, albeit from the second phase, the winner was another. It is now four successive defeats; play like this for the last five games and they are going down.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: In their different ways, Bellamy and Rodriguez showed why they should feature more frequently, while Henderson, poor in midfield of late, improved in a battling display at right-back, where he fared far better than the hapless Flanagan. The major bonus for the semi-final was that Agger and Glen Johnson, both on their way back after injuries, came through unscathed. Yet while it was a fine result and a spirited display, Liverpool, too, need to raise their performance level.
Follow Richard Jolly on Twitter: @RichJolly