Javier Mascherano was sent off for the second time this season as Liverpool suffered another setback with a wretched 2-0 loss away to Premier League basement club Portsmouth on Saturday.
Goals at Fratton Park from Algerian defender Nadir Belhadj and French striker Frederic Piquionne condemned Rafael Benitez's side to their seventh league defeat of the season. And to make matters worse for the visitors, Argentina midfielder Mascherano was dismissed for a horror tackle on Portsmouth defender Tal Ben Haim on the stroke of half-time.
Portsmouth had taken just 11 points from their opening 17 games and remain beset by financial problems. But Avram Grant's side could have taken the lead after only six minutes when Piquionne got in behind the Reds defence to latch onto Michael Brown's pass. However, Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina did enough to force Piquionne wide.
The hosts had a lucky escape ten minutes later as Steven Gerrard's goalbound shot was inadvertently blocked by team-mate Fernando Torres before being cleared. Torres then came within inches of putting Liverpool in front in the 20th minute with a majestic 20-yard curler, which had Pompey goalkeeper Asmir Begovic beaten before nestling on the roof of the net.
Jamie O'Hara threatened to leave Reina red-faced in the 25th minute with a sweetly struck free-kick, which was heading towards the top right corner before the Spaniard retreated to pluck the ball from underneath his crossbar. Jamie Carragher was making his 600th appearance for Liverpool and the defender produced a heroic block to divert Hassan Yebda's powerful volley behind for a corner from point blank range.
But the veteran defender was powerless to stop Belhadj giving Portsmouth the lead 12 minutes before half-time. Kevin-Prince Boateng's driven low shot was palmed away by Reina but Liverpool failed to clear the rebound and the ball broke kindly for Belhadj, who lashed an unstoppable right foot shot into the roof of the net from an acute angle.
Daniel Agger should have drawn Liverpool level just six minutes later when Gerrard's free-kick presented him with a free header at the back post, but the centre-back nodded wide when it looked easier to score. Liverpool were reduced to 10 men on the stroke of half time when Mascherano was shown a straight red card for a reckless lunge on Ben Haim.
Benitez, who was taunted with chants of "You're getting sacked in the morning", having "guaranteed" Liverpool would finish in the top four this term, by the home fans, replaced the hapless Andrea Dossena with Yossi Benayoun early in the second-half in a desperate bid to find a way back into the game.
Carragher came to Liverpool's aid once more in the 55th minute with a last-ditch tackle to deny Piquionne a clear shot at goal after the on-loan Lyon striker had been played through by Boateng. Torres cut an isolated figure as Liverpool's lone striker and was lucky to stay on the pitch after elbowing Ben Haim in the face with a forearm smash.
Begovic, replacing the injured David James, produced a miraculous 67th minute save to keep Portsmouth in front. Gerrard's 15-yard piledriver struck two Portsmouth players on its way to goal but Bosnian Begovic somehow managed to readjust his dive and claw the ball behind for a corner.
Piquionne wasted a guilt-edged chance to wrap up the points 15 minutes from time as he was picked out by Boateng's centre but failed to make contact with an attempted header. The striker made amends though seven minutes later, brilliantly flicking up Boateng's cross before firing past Reina at the near post to leave Liverpool five points outside the top four and in danger of falling further behind.