Delgado turns up heat as Benitez fights for survival

Liverpool 1 Lyons 2
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The Independent Football

From his seat in the Anfield directors' box last night Gerard Houllier will have recognised the problems that are closing in on Rafael Benitez: a threadbare squad, injuries to key players, a terrible run of results and the daunting prospect of facing Manchester United on Sunday.

Houllier, a former manager of Lyons too, had his bad times at Liverpool but never the four consecutive defeats that Benitez's side have now suffered, the worst run at the club since April 1987. That is before Benitez contemplates the possibility of Liverpool failing to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages, which now, with defeats to Lyons as well as Fiorentina, is a genuine possibility.

These are dark days indeed at Liverpool. In the past Benitez has always faced the worst moments – and there have been a few – with a breezy, pragmatic optimism; he has turned the tables so often in the most unpromising circumstances. But it was difficult to discern that kind of belief in him last night. He was booed by his own fans when he brought Andrei Voronin on in the second half for the goalscorer Yossi Benayoun.

That kind of response from Anfield – and it was not the entire crowd – is virtually unheard of towards a manager who they venerate for all his flaws. Benitez is well-aware that if he loses the fans then eventually he loses his job because his relationship with the American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett is too damaged to expect any unqualified support from them.

Never have Liverpool looked less prepared to take on their hated old rivals than this weekend. The injury to Steven Gerrard that forced him to take his leave on 25 minutes was a devastating and unexpected blow. There was an audible gasp in Anfield when the captain's No 8 appeared on the dot matrix board. Only today will Benitez know the extent of the damage to Gerrard's groin.

That is before you consider that Glen Johnson was also a surprise absentee last night – rested, presumably like Fernando Torres, to make sure he was fit for Sunday. Benitez paid a heavy price for that kind of conservatism, beaten in the 90th minute by substitute Cesar Delgado's goal. At the final whistle there were boos again, and the mood will surely harden should there be a fifth consecutive defeat on Sunday.

This being Benitez, with his ability to focus and re-group even in the most trying of circumstances it would be a surprise – but not a shock – were Liverpool to beat United on Sunday. He is the master of the result that changes everything, the turnaround, the comeback. United are not in the very best of their form either, but they certainly look a lot better than Liverpool.

Even so, there was something a little flustered about Benitez last night after a run of defeats that began with Fiorentina, then Chelsea, Sunderland and now last night. He said that Gerrard had told him that he was fit to play and he had simply acted accordingly. But it was not just Gerrard's injury, there was also a Liverpool attack that had David Ngog at its point and looked comprehensively out-gunned by Lyons. If Ngog is the answer to Liverpool's problems when Torres in unavailable then he needs to demonstrate it soon. The French striker had a chance to shine last night but did not take it, most noticeably when Martin Kelly, the 19-year-old stand-in for Johnson, hit a cross in the second half that Ngog took on his chest and then prodded wide. Those are the moments that have to count in the life of a young footballer.

In contrast to Ngog, Kelly, playing only his second senior game for the club, was excellent but injured himself attempting to kick Maxime Gonalons' equaliser off the line. Once Liverpool had let Lyons back into the game with that goal in the 71st minute they could not force them back again. It was not just that they missed Gerrard but that when they looked to the bench, Voronin and Ryan Babel were the only options.

Last season, Liverpool beat United at Anfield with Gerrard and Torres starting the game on the bench. Come Sunday, the hope that others might step up to fill the gap left by the captain feels fanciful. The rest of this side are just not playing well enough.

With Gerrard off the pitch, Benitez brought on Fabio Aurelio to the left side of the three midfielders behind Ngog. Benayoun went to the right wing and Dirk Kuyt assumed the position in the centre normally occupied by Gerrard. It was a poor second-best but for the later stages of the first half they responded with their best football of the game.

Pepe Reina had to save Lisandro Lopez's header from Aly Cissokho's cross and after that Liverpool found some rhythm. Kuyt and Ngog both had shots blocked when the ball ran loose in the Lyons area. The Brazilian defender Cris was struggling badly after a cynical foul on Kuyt and went off immediately after Liverpool's goal.

It was Cris who deflected Aurelios's shot in the build-up to Benayoun's goal. The loose ball caused chaos in the area and, as Lyons tried to get bodies in the way, it spilled out to Benayoun on the right side and he beat the goalkeeper Hugo Lloris from close-range.

There were chances for Liverpool but Lyons' breakthrough came on 71 minutes. From a corner from the right, Reina first punched clear; then saved the second shot from Jeremy Toulalon; got a hand to Govou's follow-up shot but could not prevent the substitute Gonalons from heading in at the back post. Sidney Govou made the winning goal, sliding the ball across the face of the goal for Delgado at the back post.

As Houllier will not have forgotten, he beat United at Old Trafford in the last two months of his time at the club but it was not enough to save his job. Nothing is yet sealed as far as Benitez is concerned but he knows that bad though things are now, they could easily get a lot worse on Sunday.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Kelly (Skrtel, 74), Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Kuyt, Gerrard (Aurelio, 25), Benayoun (Voronin, 84); Ngog. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Babel, Spearing, Plessis.

Lyons (4-1-2-3): Lloris; Reveillere, Cris (Gonalons, 43), Toulalan, Cissokho; Makoun; Pjanic, Kallstrom; Govou, Lopez (Delgado, 86), Ederson (Gomis, 61). Substitutes not used: Vercoutre (gk), Clerc, M Bastos, Belfodil.

Referee: A Mallenco (Spain).

Group E

Results so far: Liverpool 1 Debrecen 0, Lyons 1 Fiorentina 0; Debrecen 0 Lyons 4, Fiorentina 2 Liverpool 0; Liverpool 1 Lyons 2; Debrecen 3 Fiorentina 4.

Liverpool's remaining games: 4 Nov: Lyons (a); 24 Nov: Debrecen (a); 9 Dec: Fiorentina (h).