Birmingham 0 Liverpool 7 - A Birmingham City story
It's an amazing scoreline. Arsenal did it against Middlesbrough at Highbury in the league. This recent result came in the FA Cup tie last night. The BBC opted to leave this one out of their schedule and how they must have rued that decision last night. But the scoreline not only gives the impression of a one-sided game, it came from a Birmingham performance that made Steve Bruce practically a fractured man. This manager, this team are fighting to get themselves out of relegation, to evade dropping into the Championship from where they had emerged in 2001-02 to enter the Premiership by beating Norwich City in the play-offs. Bruce did that for them, and now the fans feel the utter anguish of seeing their side play as if they had not the conviction and desire required to compete at the top. I share that anguish for the fans because they have the manager and the players to do just that, and have been doing so for the past three seasons, four including the current one.
Liverpool played very well, passing and movement, better control of the ball, and more execution in front of goal, plus we were glad to see Mohamed Sissoko play after excellent treatment by hospital staff in Portugal and that in Liverpool, and response from our own medical staff and that of Benfica, whose own club doctor acted as translator in hospital and who made initial contact on occasion to monitor Sissoko's progress. Yet I was concerned the wretched league fixtures would pay to hinder Liverpool, as recent history has swayed mostly in favour of the home side at St Andrews. Yes, Birmingham played later on against Spurs and held very well, only conceding to two moments where Mario Melchiot's involvement was something to be desired. Unfortunately his involvement, or lack of, was key in yesterday's game, and he wasn't the only one.
Bruce had to field a team without Matthew Upson, Muzzy Izzet, Emile Heskey, Jiri Jarosik, Chris Sutton, players who can be influential. Stan Lazaridis is one who worried me when we played Birmingham, he likes to run down the wings quite skillfully, but he was to remain on the bench throughout the match. The Birmingham player for me who stood out was Jermaine Pennant, and I was worried his pace and crossing would ease past the somewhat hapless Djimi Traore, and Pennant did threaten well on the wings, sometimes crossing, sometimes cutting in, the only thing is he found Liverpool in numbers behind the ball. Maik Taylor is a keeper I've admired for his agility, many times keeping goal excellently, somewhere on par with Newcastle's Shay Given, but he was left horribly exposed. Those are the only two of credit last night. When you view six of the goals, they were six occasions out of many where Birmingham defended poorly.
Goal no.1 - Sissoko nodded on freely, young Marcus Painter, approximately 6ft, at left-back, was left with Peter Crouch behind and Sami Hyypia in front as Martin Taylor had Hyypia in sight and then ballwatched.
Goal no.2 - Gerrard played in a cross that bounced by the penalty spot, Crouch stealing in without challenge between Martin Taylor and Kenny Cunningham to nod down, Maik Taylor almost denying it but it crept underneath him and in.
Goal no.3 - Crouch controls a throw, touches it to Gerrard, he knocks it down the wing for Luis Garcia, Garcia cuts inside Martin Taylor and outmuscles him and Kenny Cunningham then threads a touch to the advancing Crouch to score. Melchiot was right near the edge of the box and made no movement whatsoever towards either Liverpool player. He should have come across once Garcia had beaten off Taylor.
Goal no.4 - Xabi Alonso touched to Steve Finnan, Finnan passed towards Garcia, Garcia dragged Oliver Tebily (on at half-time for Martin Taylor) and dummied, Gerrard ran inside Painter to collect the loose ball, a hole in the defence, Cunningham has to then come across, Fernando Morientes (on for Crouch) waiting between Cunningham and Melchiot, Gerrard passes across to Morientes, Melchiot hasn't sensed Morientes' position therefore has STILL not moved, Morientes taps in easily.
Goal no.5 - This was unfortunate for Birmingham while at the same time ferocious to have seen. John Arne Riise was back too, and how, unleashing a fierce trademark hammer of a shot from 20-25 yards that Maik Taylor did well to get a hand to. The Birmingham fans applauded the effort.
Goal no.6 - Throw in over by the left, Harry Kewell collects and turns his marker well, dummies Melchiot then cuts down to send a low ball across that Tebily should have moved to and dealt with, but instead he remained on the spot, therefore, having misjudged the ball's path, aimed a toe rather than a foot at it and it came off into the goal.
Goal no.7 - Tebily's OG was penultimate, this compounded the evening for the home side. Djibril Cisse, on for Gerrard, threatened Painter then cut to his right to fire a low shot that had a minute deflection off Painter's boot and squirmed under Taylor's body.
Birmingham did threaten Liverpool. Pennant's ball across almost met Mikael Forssell but for Jamie Carragher's intervention. Forssell had a shot on goal but was at a good hand level for Pepe Reina to beat away. David Dunn made attempts to dribble through and shoot. But with a 4-5-1 formation that left Forssell against a reputable defence, said to be the best at the moment, wasn't right, he needed another with him. Pennant, Stephen Clemence, Dunn, Damien Johnson and Jamie Clapham made some progress getting forward and gaining corners but other than that Forssell received little service. I would have looked for Clapham at left-back with Lazaridis at left wing to start with, unless he isn't fully fit. Bruce had to use Neil Kilkenny for Dunn then his son Alex for Johnson, as Johnson looked to be heading for a dismissal after being booked previously, otherwise I imagine he would have stayed on.
I felt the whole team, other than Forssell up front, Pennant and Taylor, were out of sorts from the beginning. I felt the fans were behind the team and Bruce for this tie, perhaps push their side for an incredible voyage into the semi-finals, even when they were 0-2 down. Even at half-time I felt we would face a rejuvenated Birmingham side with little to lose, perhaps gain a goal back to boost confidence. But they lacked urgency, almost as if they had given up when the actual breakthrough for that needed goal wouldn't materialise realistically or quickly enough. Morientes' goal made way for damaged spirits.
To be a fly in the Birmingham dressing room at half time to hear how Bruce would aim to encourage the players to turn the game. He walked off towards the tunnel like a man who had to ponder that unknown £125,000 answer with all life lines depleted. His facial and body stillness as goals went in in the second half made a louder message than words could. At full time, he walked amongst a gauntlet of stewards and police officers towards the tunnel as nearby fans beckoned to him and called for him to resign. Bruce pondered over it all in the post-match interview:
"Sometimes football kicks you in the teeth and certainly that is the biggest one I have taken. I'm shell-shocked, disappointed and humiliated. It was men against boys, a result possibly waiting to happen with the patched up side we have got. It's possibly the worst night I have ever experienced certainly in management, and with the players there are a lot of dented egos in the dressing room, and my ego is dented as well. There is very little you can say to them. They are absolutely humiliated."
As I said, there are two or three who can possibly be exempted from blame. When you do not have available certain players who have the playability to move or play others in, then there is potentially a drop in confidence and someone somehow has to restore it for the interim. Birmingham City are out of the cup, to play for next season. What is now key is their focus in the league, the one that really counts, and on paper it's daunting. Away to Man Utd, home to Chelsea and Bolton after. They are three points from safety and Midlands rival West Brom, just three points. West Brom face Spurs away, Liverpool at home then another Midlands rival in Aston Villa at Villa Park. But over Birmingham's shoulder are Portsmouth on equal points, who face Arsenal at home, Fulham away then home against Blackburn.
If I was Steve Bruce, I would bring the players in today for a big discussion, review the game and point out what went wrong and ensure it is not repeated. Such a game like that of last night must hit very deep, for a team to take in, bond and remember to hold a tighter structure when playing next. Be it Man Utd or Mackton Utd.