West Brom produced a textbook smash and grab victory as they absorbed 80 minutes of Liverpool pressure, including a saved penalty, and then struck twice in the final 10 minutes to take the three points at Anfield on Monday.
Incredibly, West Brom’s first shot on target had come just seconds before their opener and from the resulting corner Gareth McAuley headed into the net. A clearly shell-shocked Liverpool then lost all hope of a comeback as substitute Romelu Lukaku capped a fine cameo with a goal in the first minute of stoppage time.
Steve Clarke’s side deserve much credit for their defensive work, but Liverpool also have only themselves to blame for not making the most of their superiority throughout the contest. Even an incredibly dubious penalty award failed to yield a goal for Liverpool as Steven Gerrard’s spot kick was kept out by Ben Foster just three minutes before they fell behind.
With Brendan Rodgers talking about the possibility of a Champions League place for his side and Liverpool having appeared to have shaken off their previous inconsistency, this was a disappointing return to the brittle displays that plagued them for much of the first half of the season.
Liverpool were handicapped with Daniel Sturridge, who had scored four goals in his first six appearances, out with a thigh injury. Their other January signing, Philippe Coutinho began on the bench.
Against a side that had taken just a solitary point from the last 24 on offer, Liverpool unsurprisingly began on top. Perhaps with their recent poor form in mind, West Brom manager Steve Clarke set his side up with a strong focus on being defensive solidity. That the visitors didn’t have a single shot in the opening 45 minutes spoke volumes.
An early goal would have changed the whole complexion of the match and for a brief second Liverpool thought they had just that. Glen Johnson’s crisp volley from outside the box was spilled by West Brom goalkeeper Foster and Jonjo Shelvey was on hand to tap home, but his celebrations were immediately halted for a correctly raised offside flag.
The closest Liverpool came to breaking the deadlock in the first period came courtesy of two Stewart Downing deliveries. The winger continued his recent return to form and was arguably Liverpool’s most threatening player throughout the evening.
First, direct from a corner Daniel Agger’s header was tipped over by Foster and then from a short corner Agger somehow missed the ball completely when unmarked six yards out.
Downing’s new found confidence was epitomized in the 26th minute as he took down a pinged Gerrard cross-field pass and unleashed a venomous drive from 30 yards that Foster could only claim at the second attempt.
All West Brom’s resolute defensive work was almost undone as half-time approached when Steven Reid attempted a wild clearance that struck his standing leg and traveled inches over his own cross bar.
Liverpool came out of the traps faster in the second half and had two quick-fore attempts. First Foster came out of his goal smartly to deny Gerrard after a scramble in the box and then Jordan Henderson was denied by the former Manchester United goalkeeper as he produced a smart flick from Glen Johnson’s cross.
But as the minutes ticked on Rodgers could see the chance for the three points ebbing away, and brought on both Raheem Sterling and Fabio Borini to try and give his side increased attacking impetus.
And the move had some impact as Liverpool were getting closer and closer to getting a goal.
Suarez looked primed to hit the back of the net after being played through by a fine Gerrard pass, but McAuley, excellent at both ends of the pitch, made a last-gasp diving block to deny the Uruguayan.
When West Brom’s defense was breached, Liverpool found Foster in fine form. From Sterling’s low pass across the edge of the box, Gerrard took the ball past a defender and hit a powerful shot that Foster did excellently to keep out with his weight going the other way and Borini found the side netting from the rebound.
With 13 minutes left on the clock it appeared that Liverpool would finally get their breakthrough. Jose Enrique swung a cross into the box and Suarez went down pleading for a penalty despite the merest of shoves from Jonas Olsson. Incredibly, referee Jon Moss complied with Suarez’s request.
But Liverpool’s night was summed up and justice was perhaps done as Foster made a top-drawer save from Gerrard’s spot kick diving low to his left.
Then out of nowhere Reina was called into action for the first time in the contest from a fierce Youssuf Mulumbu drive. From the resulting corner, Liverpool’s marking went missing and McAuley steered a header into the net off the cross bar.
With Liverpool desperately trying to come back for at least a point, Lukaku’s pace provided a powerful weapon on the break. The striker, on-loan from Chelsea, had already came close when he took James Morrison’s pass and got past Agger far too easily before dispatching the ball with a side-footed finish past Reina.