Fine Foster sets up Anfield shock
February is starting to have a finality. First the title race was effectively ended, then Liverpool's quest for a top-four finish, which always appeared unlikely, came to an abrupt end. Twelve points adrift of a Champions League spot with 12 games to go, they head to St Petersburg with another year of Europa League football the best possible outcome from a transitional and probably trophy-less year.
After the false start to Brendan Rodgers' reign at the Hawthorns in August, Liverpool were again left to rue West Bromwich Albion's obduracy. Two league reunions with their former assistant manager Steve Clarke have brought them no goals, no points and copious amounts of frustration.
It mounted by the minute, with every save the superb Ben Foster made, with Steven Gerrard's missed penalty, with Gareth McAuley's and Romelu Lukaku's late goals. A first win of 2013 halted Albion's slide and came with a hint of history: not since 1966-67 had they beaten Liverpool home and away. If each of his successors has sought to emulate Bill Shankly, that was probably not quite how Rodgers had in mind. "It was a disappointment," he said.
It conformed to a familiar theme. Liverpool's extraordinary inability to win a league game against a side in the top 10 means they cannot merit a place among the elite. Inconsistency remains an issue, with sequences of promising performances interrupted by several shocking results: against Aston Villa, Stoke and now Albion in the Premier League plus Swansea and Oldham in the domestic cups.
A club who have long been accused of being over-reliant on one or two individuals discovered that, six weeks into his Anfield career, Daniel Sturridge appears indispensable. Minus the injured striker, Liverpool had shots but not spark, displaying persistence without penetration. "We gave it everything but just couldn't break through," said Rodgers. "We weren't at our best." Indeed, it was a laboured, low-calibre effort.
Liverpool had 19 attempts at goal but found Foster giving a masterclass in defiance. In front of him, Jonas Olsson and McAuley were twin towers. Theirs was a rearguard action but a really significant one. It has been a traumatic fortnight for Albion but, after the Peter Odemwingie affair, the Baggies regained their bounce. Lukaku, in particular, had a spring in his step. The definition of an impact sub, the Belgian galloped away to score the second. If Jamie Carragher was reconsidering his decision to retire, the budding Drogba showed that defending against him is a young, and a quick, man's game.
He also ensured Odemwingie was not required. The reintegration process began with the Albion forward sat in the stands, texting, but brought along to support the men who remain his colleagues. His omission, Clarke said, "wasn't a difficult decision." Nor was it a misguided one, centre-forward and centre-back striking.
McAuley made the breakthrough with a thumping header from Chris Brunt's corner. Albion were spurred on, however, by events in the other box. Foster's spot-kick save was pivotal. "That gave us a little bit of momentum," Clarke argued.
It also made them feel justice was applied by the goalkeeper, rather than the officials. A question if Suarez backed into Olsson or the Swede shoved the striker. Referee Jon Moss decided it was the latter. "It was worse than harsh," Clarke complained, but Albion went from aggrieved to relieved.
"When you come to a place like Liverpool, your goalkeeper is going to have to make some saves," Clarke said. "Because of the referee, he had to make an extra one." It was the finest in a string of stops from Foster. There was a double save to deny Stewart Downing and Gerrard, a flying block to keep the England captain's drive out, a reflex movement to keep out Jordan Henderson's backheeled flick.
"That's why we spent a little bit of money on him last summer," said Clarke, aware expenditure at Anfield is rather higher. "We don't spend much at the Albion but we spend it wisely." They are a club who have made a little go a long way and whose prowess could take them further.
"We have never spoken about European football," Clarke added. "I have said all the time: 40 points is the first target. We are almost there." Survival is the first aim but Albion sit proudly in the upper reaches of the league.
"We deserve to be in the top eight," Clarke said. And Liverpool are ninth.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ben Foster - Outstanding. It has hardly been a vintage season for goalkeepers but the former England man produced a display to savour. "There's no reason he can't play international football except the most important one: he doesn't want to," said Clarke.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: After their terrific display against Manchester City, it was a sense of anti-climax. As is often the case, Rodgers did not fault his players' efforts. But Liverpool lacked invention and incision and many of their efforts were optimistic long-range shots. Philippe Coutinho, the recent signing from Inter, came on for his debut but without making much of an impact while Fabio Borini's long wait for a league goal continues. Jonjo Shelvey, who started in place of Sturridge, produced a performance of unfortunate haplessness.
WEST BROM VERDICT: It was a fine away performance. While Foster and the centre-backs were busy, the trio ahead of them were just as significant. For the first time in weeks, Albion had the influential midfield trio of Claudio Yacob, Youssouf Mulumbu and James Morrison together. Impressive as Lukaku was, Clarke credited Shane Long for another shift of unselfish running before the substitute joined him in attack.