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May 17, 2009

Looking for the positives

Liverpool's most revered manager Bill Shankly once said: "If you are second you are nothing." He may find those sentiments echoed around Old Trafford now, but there are reasons to disagree. The current Liverpool team provide plenty.

Second may equate to second best for some, but by winning nine and drawing one of their last 10 games Liverpool threatened something special, delivered some magical performances and achieved some marvellous results. Whereas they once frustrated in the costly stalemates at Anfield, they have captivated and enchanted in their magnificent, desperate pursuit of Manchester United.

That they extended their participation in the title race into May is one measure of a marked improvement. Defeating the champions at home and away is another, while a series of scintillating demolition jobs provide a third.

Savouring their reinvention as adventurous attackers and liberated by life in the last-chance saloon, they discovered time was called a day before they kicked off at The Hawthorns. Nonetheless, they maintained their winning habit, courtesy of Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt and, in the process, sealed the inevitable for West Brom: relegation.

Albion's wonderful support turned what could have been a wake into an end-of-season carnival.

Rafa Benitez found himself with plenty to enjoy in his analysis of the campaign. He said: "I think it has been very positive in terms of the performances of the team, especially at the end; 83 points is massive. Without playing Torres and Gerrard together for a long time, it has to be very positive."

The phrase "what if?" can be invoked. What if Gerrard and Fernando Torres had started 37 games together, rather than 13? While football is full of hypotheticals, such is their impact that it is a legitimate question. Gerrard's strike took their combined haul to 17 from the minority of matches when they have been paired.

It came in a moment that was sadly typical for Albion. Shelton Martis was robbed by Gerrard, both thinking and moving quicker than the Albion defender. The diving Dean Kiely was then defeated by the lowest of chips from the Liverpool captain, rolling into the net. "It epitomises us this year," said Tony Mowbray. Never overflowing with joie de vivre, he looked particularly downcast after the latest error. "But Shelton Martis cost £50,000. He didn't cost £15m."

After Kiely tipped a Torres header on to the bar, a high-class second goal secured victory. Gerrard bisected the Albion midfield with an angled pass to find Kuyt, who followed a winding solo run with a drilled finish.

Together with a fine defensive header to prevent Juan Carlos Menseguez from scoring, it was a reminder of the Dutchman's importance at both ends of the pitch. Once maligned, his reputation has been enhanced this season. Yet the sight of Ryan Babel and David Ngog arriving as replacements hinted at Liverpool's shortcomings as Benitez tacitly admitted when asked where Manchester United won the title.

He added: "They have quality, especially on the bench. Against Arsenal, they had [Paul] Scholes, [Ryan] Giggs and [Dimitar] Berbatov on the bench. These are the players that make a difference. We have less of these players." As the Spaniard accepted, such footballers can be expensive. While Liverpool can no longer be deemed a two-man team, they are not, in the way United are, a 25-man squad.

In terms of proven Premier League footballers, Albion certainly aren't. A frantic pursuit of a consolation goal was, like their season, ultimately unsuccessful. Luke Moore hit the post and Marc-Antoine Fortune had a goal chalked off but their attacks were ultimately memorable for an altercation between Jamie Carragher and Alvaro Arbeloa, the team-mates pushing each other.

"I don't like it but I am trying to find the positive side," added Benitez. "Arbeloa was going forward and then we had some problems in defence. Now I think we have 20 clean sheets and [Edwin] van der Sar has 21 so we want another one." The statistics, ever an issue for Benitez, reinforce his view that progress has been made. The same could not be said for their hosts, though the crowd afforded a generous reception to their band of skilful passers and error-prone defenders. There are regrets and recriminations elsewhere, but Albion were applauded off and afforded a lap of honour by supporters singing Mowbray's name. The Boing Boing Baggies have bounced back into the Championship - their third relegation in seven seasons - to cement their status as the foremost yo-yo club in the top two divisions.

Shankly's definition of 20th best would have been entertaining, if perhaps unfair on Albion. Second, in the manner of their challenge and given the quality of side assembled, amounts to Liverpool's best effort in the league for almost two decades. "Nothing," to quote Shankly, has rarely had this kind of futile glory.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Jamie Carragher - His fractured relationship with Arbeloa was eye-catching, but his entire afternoon said more about Carragher. His is a brand of defiant defending, even when the majority of his colleagues seemed far more intent on scoring a third goal rather than keeping a clean sheet.

• WEST BROM VERDICT: Mowbray believes that, unlike most relegated clubs, West Brom do not need to sell. Changes, however, are likely. Albion have not abandoned hope of signing Fortune, who has managed five goals in his brief loan spell. If the only bids from Premier League clubs are likely to be for midfielders such as Chris Brunt, James Morrison and Greening, Mowbray could benefit from finally recruiting more dependable defenders. Striker Roman Bednar, suspended amid allegations of drug taking, has an uncertain future.

L• IVERPOOL VERDICT: While Xabi Alonso faces a second summer of speculation, the case for keeping the Spaniard has grown over the course of the season. More quality is required, but sacrificing one of their outstanding performers would be a strange way to secure it.

• MOWBRAY'S WAY: Most managers never miss an opportunity to claim they should have had a penalty. Not Mowbray; invited to suggest Albion had a good claim, he replied: "Probably not, because I can't remember it."

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