BIRMINGHAM, England, April 4, 2010 (AFP) - Liverpool's challenge for a Champions League place suffered another setback as Liam Ridgewell's goal gave Birmingham a 1-1 draw at St Andrews on Sunday.
Rafael Benitez's side took the lead early in the second half through Steven Gerrard's seventh Premier League goal of a worryingly unproductive season.
But Ridgewell equalised soon after to leave Liverpool without an away win in seven league outings, their worst run away from Anfield in four seasons.
The Reds remain four points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City, having played a game more than Roberto Mancini's side.
Benitez also opted to substitute Fernando Torres 25 minutes before full-time in an attempt to save the legs of the Spanish international ahead of Thursday's Europa League quarter-final second leg against Benfica.
|Torres (L) is substituted for David N'Gog (3rdR) during their Premier League football match on April 4, 2010. AFP PHOTO|
For all Benitez's promises of a fourth place finish and Torres's assertion they needed to win their remaining six games, the lack of urgency in Liverpool's first half performance was alarming.
Benitez's decision to play two holding midfielders was far too cautious and they will surely have to be more adventurous to achieve the bare minimum of Champions League qualification.
"It is not a good point, despite Birmingham playing so well here this season," Benitez said.
"We deserved to win. We had a very good chance in the first half and a lot in the second half.
"We didn't have any margin for error beforehand and now we have less margin in terms of coming fourth."
Birmingham had already deprived Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City of points at St Andrews, so it was hardly surprising to see Liverpool struggle to break down the home side's defence.
Yet Maxi Rodriguez will take some time to work out how he did not register his first Liverpool goal at the end of an incisive move begun by Pepe Reina's throw out to Dirk Kuyt.
Yossi Benayoun and Torres combined to set up the Argentinian's volley from six yards, but somehow Joe Hart managed to push the shot up onto the bar and away to safety.
That was as exciting as it got in the first 45 minutes, but the game burst into life with two goals in nine second half minutes.
There was more than a hint of good fortune in the way Glen Johnson's attempted shot from the edge of the area found its way to Gerrard after the England international's corner had been headed clear by Stephen Carr.
There was nothing remotely fortunate about the way Gerrard wrong-footed Lee Bowyer and produced devastating power in his right boot to defeat Hart from an acute angle on 47 minutes.
But Gerrard's hard work was undone by dreadful defending with no one within five yards of Ridgewell as he bundled in James McFadden's cross at the far post in the 56th minute.
Bowyer could have won it for Birmingham, but contrived to miss from six yards when unmarked at the far post and David Ngog, Torres's replacement, could easily have finished with two goals of his own.
Rodriguez's pass set up Ngog, who shot wide from 15 yards and in stoppage time the Frenchman missed from closer range after Gerrard's long diagonal pass.