West Bromwich Albion 0, Liverpool 2

The dense odour of relegation is descending upon West Bromwich Albion like industrial smog, but there are the odd pockets of fresh air.

One of those pockets is known in the trade as Zoltan Gera, whose return to the Albion squad will ensure that his colleagues can breathe a little more easily over the next five weeks.

With Liverpool leading here 2-0 and Albion playing like a collection of individuals rather than a team, Gera

arrived at the start of the second half in place of the ineffective Diomansy Kamara and proceeded to offer a sweeter fragrance.

Twice in the opening five minutes of the second half, he tested Jose Reina, the Liverpool goalkeeper, with fierce shots, whereas Albion had managed only one shot in the entire first half.

If Albion are relegated next month, how Bryan Robson, their manager, will lament the injuries that have decimated Gera's season. How Albion will wonder how one man can have such a profound effect.

With Portsmouth (or Ports Mouth, as Robson calls them) winning 3-1 away to Fulham and Birmingham City drawing 0-0 at home to Chelsea, Albion are losing ground and losing in confidence. No longer do they have their fate in their own hands. They need favours. And luck. And Zoltan Gera.

True, there was an element of fortune about both of the goals that enabled Liverpool to secure the victory but hiding behind that as an excuse would be futile.

Robbie Fowler was offside when he broke clear at the far post to score in the seventh minute from close range after a cross by Djibril Cisse while Cisse appeared to control the ball with his hand on his way to rounding Tomasz Kuszczak to score the second in the 38th minute.

But one sensed that Liverpool would have found a way of winning even if Uriah Rennie, the referee, had disallowed both of these goals. The European champions outpassed Albion in the first half and outthought Albion in the second.

In the first half, Albion were, frankly, dreadful.

"Liverpool's first goal was offside, there's no doubt about that, but we never seem to get decisions like that," Robson said. "But that's not an excuse for the way we played in the first half because we were absolutely hopeless on the ball.

"We didn't pass it and there was no conviction in our play whatsoever, which is why you get beaten when you play against teams like Liverpool. We looked nervous from kick-off. Right away, we started edgily and we never recovered from that.

"Our composure was poor, which I can't understand because the players were in a decent-enough mood coming into the game. It's all right talking a good game, but you have to do it on the pitch and, for the first time in quite a few weeks, our performance level was not there in that first half."

Albion did improve significantly in the second, without giving the impression that they could score the goals necessary to draw. Gera tried his best on the right of midfield while Jonathan Greening, on the left flank, relished the extra space he seemed to find after half time.

Andy Johnson and Ronnie Wallwork adopted a more positive attitude and seemed to complement each other more when it mattered but there was little to suggest that here are a team who believe they can survive.

A year ago, there was a conviction that, somehow, Albion could defy the odds.

This time, with a significantly stronger squad, there is less assurance.

Robson, easily Albion's best manager in a generation, faces the toughest task of his 12-year managerial career. Instilling confidence can often be more difficult than signing the right players and adopt-ing the right tactics.

Belief is so important. Albion lacked it against Birmingham City last month, when victory was there for the taking; they lacked it here against Liverpool until it was too late.

Towards the end, it was still Liverpool who looked the likelier of the teams to score. When Harry Kewell arrowed the ball towards the near post, Fernando Morientes somehow contrived to miss when it seemed easier to score.

Three-nil would not have been harsh on Albion. They did not do enough to gain anything from a match that, from their point of view, is best forgotten.

Albion must hate playing Liverpool at The Hawthorns. They have lost 6-0, 5-0 and now 2-0 - with no signs that the pattern will change.

To ensure that the fixture will be repeated next season, Albion must go back to the future. They must turn the clocks back a year and remind themselves of the character that is required to avoid relegation. Albion are good enough for another season in the Premiership but they must prove they are.