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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 2, 2008

Rafa's two-man team way off the pace

'There's only one Titus Bramble' ranks among football's more unlikely chants. There is a temptation to assume that it is only aired by supporters of Wigan's opponents and, before that, Newcastle's. But a resounding eulogy to the often error-prone defender livened up the first half and it wasn't an ironic rendition from a grateful Kop.

Indeed the Wigan fans' backing - which initially inspired a caustic comment of 'thank God' - appeared positively prophetic when the Premier League's most maligned player scored an unstoppable equaliser, latching on to Steven Gerrard's mis-kicked clearance to rifle in a wonderful shot.

'He's had some unfair treatment,' said manager Steve Bruce. 'People forget he's a young man in footballing terms. He played centre-half for a team who finished fourth in the league twice so he can't be that bad. He's a really good player.'

It is not often that Bramble has a say in the destination of the Premier League title, but then this was not a normal evening. Wigan have faced members of the so-called 'big four' in 20 previous league games and lost the lot. A belated first point, besides aiding their chances of survival, leaves Liverpool 12 points adrift of Arsenal and open to unflattering comparisons with the three sides above them.

Arsenal and Manchester United have mastered the blueprint for scoring early and winning easily. Chelsea are enjoying fortune, but grinding out victories with a weakened team nonetheless. Liverpool, meanwhile, had their full complement of attacking players available and still stumbled against a Wigan side whose sole intention was to emerge with a point.

Nor is it hard to see where Liverpool's title bid has been derailed. While Manchester United have ten home wins and Chelsea nine, Liverpool have managed a mere four. Anfield will be missed when a new ground is constructed but not, it would appear, by some of Rafa Benitez's players. The nadir at home had been a stalemate with Birmingham City, but Steve Bruce's second success at subduing Liverpool resulted in rare boos for Benitez's men at the end.

'For sure, it is more difficult,' said Benitez, without admitting that the title is beyond them. 'It is clear that it [the gap] is bigger but I've said before it is a long race. 'I am really disappointed because it was another game where we needed a little bit of luck. We had plenty of possession but we needed to take chances.'

While Gerrard erred in enabling Wigan to level, his colleagues demonstrated why Liverpool remain a two-man team. With either the captain or the record signing on target in every victory since October's Mersey derby, the logical conclusion was that Liverpool's other forwards have been rendered superfluous, and Benitez duly dispensed with them until the final few minutes. Fernando Torres scored his 16th goal of the season, but even that was not enough.

Gerrard's barnstorming attempt to rectify the damage he had done brought a fine double save from Chris Kirkland as well as memories of the win at Derby, where he practically willed the ball into the net. The problem remains that others are unable to provide the individual inspiration and it only serves to increase Liverpool's dependence on them.

A consistently winning formula remains elusive. Two essentially deep-lying midfielders, in Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, definitely rank among Liverpool's best 11 players, but that does not necessarily mean both were required to combat Wigan at Anfield. Torres is so clearly superior to the rest of Liverpool's strike force that, while Peter Crouch's fan club may disagree, it is hard to argue with their omission, but in their absence, more is required from the wingers. Benitez explained: 'We were trying to play with wingers really wide, trying to spread out the team and create the space, with Gerrard getting into the box.' But Harry Kewell's contributions were fleeting and Jermaine Pennant's still more infrequent.

It came down, as it so often does, to Gerrard and Torres. Of Liverpool's ten major efforts, nine involved one or other. Their goal involved both, Steve Finnan exchanging passes with Gerrard before crossing for Torres to squeeze in a shot. Gerrard almost doubled the lead with a thunderous shot that Kirkland fumbled before Bramble, in unusually inspired form at either end, hacked it off the line. 'When you cannot score the second goal it is a problem,' admitted Benitez.

With Wigan keeping eight men behind the ball, and either Marcus Bent or Emile Heskey dropping back to augment them, that proved beyond Liverpool. It was not the most ambitious tactic, but it was a legitimate one for Wigan and Bramble justified it.

Bruce added: 'The discipline of the team was spot on. The gameplan has served us well, but all credit to the players. Six weeks ago, we were in danger of getting marooned. We've played five of the top 10 teams and we've got a few points, which have got us out of trouble.'

Liverpool, meanwhile, are in a different kind of trouble. 'There's always Moscow in May,' was one attempt at consolation. And in the Champions League, they won't have to worry about Titus Bramble.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Fernando Torres - Led the line superbly, consistently troubling Wigan and capable of embarrassing defenders with his skill as Paul Scharner, left on his backside by one trick, can testify. But Bramble, with a goal-line clearance and a goal, was the most influential player.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: They continue to frustrate but while this draw may be attributed to Benitez's refusal to pick a second striker, the choice of Pennant rather than Yossi Benayoun may have been more damaging. Whether Benitez will rotate in the league to concentrate on the cups remains to be seen.

WIGAN VERDICT: They have taken eight points from their last five games and Bruce appears to be revitalising them. But adding three or four players in January, as he intends to, is vital for a squad desperately lacking strength in depth.


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