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Sep 12, 2010

McLeish continues to put faith in old guard

Delayed gratification seems to appeal to football managers. Some eschew the instant introduction of new signings, favouring a more gradual integration and ignoring the more understandable clamour from supporters to see the latest additions.

• B'ham 0-0 Liverpool: Reina shines
• Birmingham players hail Reina display
• Premier League gallery
• Hodgson defends lacklustre Torres
• Team of the Week: September 12

Sometimes it is understandable, too. As Alex McLeish opted for 10 outfield players who were all at St Andrew's last season, it was evident he had no reason to disrupt a well-drilled team or to alter a successful formula. The tried and trusted were terrific in overpowering, though not overcoming, Liverpool.

His logic was both compelling - "I went for a very experienced Premier League team as players are trying to acclimatise to the English game" - and justified. Meanwhile, Birmingham's bench was packed with recent recruits - Matt Derbyshire, Nikola Zigic and Martin Jiranek - while Alexander Hleb and Jean Beausejour were denied debuts by injury. Having stockpiled players, McLeish is content to keep the unproven on the shelves.

Sometimes, however, the more measured approach can appear excessively cautious. Raul Meireles is the most expensive arrival at Anfield in Roy Hodgson's reign. He is also match fit, having played twice in the previous nine days for Portugal, though short of practice with his new colleagues. Yet he spent 77 minutes of his debut on the bench with Thursday's Europa League game against Steaua Bucharest pencilled in for his first start.

Meireles' belated emergence included an indication he can offer something different. While the safety-first pair of Christian Poulsen and Lucas sat in front of the defence, the Portuguese made a late break beyond Fernando Torres to meet the Spaniard's flick-on. It did not result in a goal, but it could have done.

As life after Javier Mascherano began in earnest, Liverpool received confirmation that it contains its difficulties. A trip to St Andrew's, with the confirmation of high-tempo football and a high-volume crowd, was the sort of game that appealed to the Argentine. Minus the arch-antagonist, Liverpool lacked the snap and bite he brought.

Birmingham played with the zeal Mascherano often exhibits. Barry Ferguson and Craig Gardner imposed themselves upon the game; the subdued pair of Lucas and Poulsen didn't. "Ferguson was just fantastic," said his manager. "He's just a dream to work with and when he plays the way he did today, you see he is a top-class player."

He personified a side, but it was no one-man effort. "The performance level of the whole team was outstanding," McLeish added. Indeed, their approach requires a collective commitment. There is nothing remotely glamorous about the pressing game but it can be a highly effective method of smothering opponents. Pressure was applied, Liverpool were deprived of room. The consequence was a shortage of service for Steven Gerrard and Torres.

The latter came in for criticism for his first-half performance - though he tested Ben Foster twice after the interval with efforts that gave hints of his talent - and attitude. Roy Hodgson mounted a defence of his striker. "I'm not at all concerned about Fernando Torres," he said. "He will get better and better as the season goes on."

He must hope the same applies to Liverpool. It required a virtuoso display from Jose Reina to spare them defeat; one save, from Cameron Jerome, was a Gordon Banks impression; another, from Gardner, was almost as good. "We were dependent upon two very good saves," admitted Hodgson. "He's a great goalkeeper," added McLeish.

They are two of the great managerial over-achievers of last season; the difference between a side playing at its potential and one operating below its may lie in the amount of time the Scot has had to fashion his team.

Momentum has come with understanding. Fortress St Andrew's remains unbreached for almost a year, a record that has lasted sufficiently long that its last conqueror was Gary Megson. Twelve months on, that has a surreal sound. If Birmingham have a tendency to draw with the better teams at home, they were the superior side on this occasion. Despite his three deadline-day arrivals, McLeish can rationalise that he has little reason to change. For Liverpool, with Joe Cole available again, Meireles lurking in reserve and a trip to Old Trafford on the horizon, Hodgson has a greater need to call on reinforcements. The time for delaying may be over.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jose Reina - It is a long way from Buenos Aires to Birmingham in every respect. Horribly culpable for Carlos Tevez's goal for Argentina on Tuesday, he was outstanding at St Andrew's on Sunday.

BIRMINGHAM VERDICT: This was an excellent team performance. Craig Gardner appears one of the most improved players in the division this year and is forming a formidable partnership with Ferguson, while Lee Bowyer slotted in well on the left and Seb Larsson provided some excellent crosses from the right. Criticised by Craig Levein during the week, James McFadden came in for praise from McLeish for his efforts.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Their away form remains a concern. After two, albeit tough, league games this season, they are yet to score on their travels, let alone win. In very different circumstances, Hodgson's record on the road was undistinguished. While his preference for solidity is established, it may take a tweak to make them more attack-minded, using either Meireles or Gerrard in the centre of midfield.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING: This was a seventh successive league draw between the two clubs which equals a Premier League record.

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