Temptingly close and frustratingly far away, fourth place exerts a hold on Liverpool. Were it reciprocated, the atmosphere around a troubled club would be less fraught. It was within their grasp when they arrived at Wigan, but it escaped Liverpool's clutch. A must-win game wasn't won, a chance to leapfrog Tottenham wasn't spurned as much as surrendered and Rafa Benitez's infamous guarantee looked to have been attached to faulty goods.
For the manager from Madrid, this was a reminder that only one letter separates pain from Spain. Benitez's relationships with some of the British bosses can be awkward, but a compatriot was responsible for his latest setback. Roberto Martinez supervised a stylish savaging, his side playing the quintessentially Spanish 4-2-3-1 and securing victory through a South American, in Hugo Rodallega. Benitez has recruited that continent's talent enthusiastically, but it was an evening when comparisons were unflattering to Liverpool.
They remain a team prone to disjointed displays. If this did not plumb the depths reached at Portsmouth in December or Middlesbrough last February, that is scarcely cause for celebration. A withering appraisal of their performance came from an unusually damning Benitez.
"We didn't play well, especially in the first half," he said. "We had too many things that were wrong. We have to show more character if we want to be in the top four. You cannot guarantee anything if you do not show character or attitude."
Frustration was apparent as five men in red were cautioned; there was certainly enough to irritate Benitez. His side were ragged defensively on an occasion to illustrate that neither Emiliano Insua nor Sotirios Kyrgiakos enjoy encounters with swift opponents. In attack, Fernando Torres foraged in distant isolation at times, as though others reasoned his sheer presence would be enough. It was not. "The team has to give him more," said his manager.
When a Torres shot went out for throw, and when a breakdown in communication between Jamie Carragher and Jose Reina resulted in the vice-captain's clearance cannoning off Marcelo Moreno and almost dropping into an empty net, there were examples of uncharacteristic errors at either end. "Too many," sighed Benitez.
The costliest came from Dirk Kuyt. Emmerson Boyce intercepted a dangerously casual pass from the Dutchman, curled the ball in with the outside of his right foot and Rodallega met it with a low volley to defeat Reina. The tale of Liverpool contributing to their own downfall is not new, but to emphasise that risks downplaying Wigan's considerable contribution.
There are occasions when Martinez's passing principles appear horribly misguided, but this was not one of them. Seeking to out-play opponents can be naive, yet it should bring a greater sense of vindication when they succeed. Wigan did just that. They were terrific.
Liverpool were overwhelmed at times. Wigan have a maddening inconsistency that can be attributed to a shortage of goalscoring forwards, but they also possess power and pace to add to their technical skills. The DW Stadium can appear a finishing school for skilled imports and three, in particular, demonstrated an ability that others could covet.
Rodallega allied incision with precision, Mohamed Diame was a blockbusting presence in the midfield and Charles N'Zogbia's blend of skill and speed ensured Insua endured a harrowing night.
He merited a goal and almost got one when Liverpool's defence was unlocked by a beautiful move. Rodallega guided the ball into N'Zogbia's path. The sprinting, stretching Frenchman was thwarted by Reina and Glen Johnson had to be alert to prevent Paul Scharner tapping in the rebound.
"It was a night to remember for the fans," said Martinez, though it was one to savour for him. "It was huge. Today, I was extremely proud of the players, the way they reacted and made it their night. Too many people were beginning to question the way we play and the style of play but if you work extremely hard, you can play against anyone and beat them."
He was gratified that his side "limited Liverpool to very, very little." There were two near misses. Torres volleyed against the outside of the post and sent a scissor kick just past the woodwork. That apart, Wigan were the likelier scorers.
"In football you try to judge performances by the results," Martinez said. For Liverpool, neither was good enough.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Charles N'Zogbia - Martinez has been touting the Frenchman for England, on basis of residence. If his nationality should preclude that, the winger's stellar season should mean more sizeable clubs give him a future away from Wigan.
WIGAN VERDICT: The first win against Liverpool in their history and the second against Big Four opposition was well deserved. Gary Caldwell has brought solidity to the defence since his January move from Celtic, while it was another game to illustrate the promise of James McCarthy. The challenge for Wigan is to produce this sort of performance more often and extricate themselves from the relegation scrap.
LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Injuries and ill-fortune have been contributory factors over the course of the campaign, but they were not at the DW Stadium. Indeed, with Johnson returning as a substitute for the last 35 minutes, Martin Skrtel is the only significant absentee. Yet with Javier Mascherano at right-back and Steven Gerrard anchoring the midfield for much of the match, Liverpool were subdued until each adopted his normal position. When the component parts of the Gerrard-Torres axis were separated by 40 yards, they were in separate postcodes, not in harness with each other.