'Maybe men' fail to impress in late Reds collapse

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The Independent Football

Since Clint Eastwood was the guest of honour the last time Lyons played, it was a night to ask if Rafael Benitez was feeling lucky. No man deprived of the services of Fernando Torres, perhaps Europe's finest striker, and missing Glen Johnson, the country's most expensive right-back, in a week which might decide Liverpool's season, would call himself fortunate. Not three days after losing a match to a deflection off a beach ball.

Within 25 minutes Benitez had lost the services of Steven Gerrard, so often the club's great insurance policy against disaster, and seen a muscular header from Dirk Kuyt ruled out. What was left was the core of the club Benitez has spent the last five years fashioning, shorn of its greatest attractions. You could call it Rafa Lite or Benitez Unplugged. Whatever it was, it succumbed to a late and, in the context of this Champions League campaign, potentially disastrous defeat.

Analysing their reverse at Sunderland, Alan Hansen, Liverpool's finest captain, gave vent to one of the most valid criticisms of Benitez's five years on Merseyside. It is that what Hansen calls "the maybe players", those brought in for between £3-6m, are simply not good enough.

There were "maybe players" all over the pitch against Lyons last night. David Ngog up front, Fabio Aurelio, brought in as Gerrard's replacement, and Emiliano Insua at left-back. Yossi Benayoun, perhaps the definition of a "maybe player" when he arrived from West Ham, scored.

His replacement by Andrei Voronin was howled down by a ground that is no longer so in thrall to their manager. There were banners depicting Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley on the Kop but the one with Benitez's face was absent, although this may have been coincidence. Only once, just before the interval, was his name sung. At the end, there was only the sound of the Marseillaise drifting into the autumn air from the Anfield Road End.

Another criticism levelled against Benitez's Liverpool is an absence of leadership, especially in the vacuum when Gerrard and Torres do not play. The team that so astonishingly overthrew a three-goal deficit against Milan in a European Cup final has yet to recover from falling behind this season and collapsed last night.

There was leadership in Pepe Reina's remarkable save from Lisandro Lopez and in the way Javier Mascherano hunted down and dispossessed Ederson in the opening exchanges, but ultimately the creaking floodgates gave way.

In the aftermath of Lyons' equaliser, a teenager from Whiston on Merseyside, limped off, another injury and on the face of it not the most serious one on Benitez's agenda. And yet, asked to plug the gap left by Johnson's absence, Martin Kelly performed manfully. One of the memories of a sometimes compelling evening was the deep, measured cross delivered across the Kop at speed that was met by a venomous header from Fabio Aurelio. There have not been many products of Liverpool's Academy to have thrived in recent seasons, as Jay Spearing's travails at Sunderland demonstrated. Two years ago after a 6-3 humiliation by Arsenal in the Carling Cup at Anfield, Benitez demanded and was given direct control of Liverpool's youth policy. The benefits have not always been obvious and at the end of the month they face Arsenal again in the same competition.

The time is approaching when a definitive judgement has to be made on his regime, and you could chose any one of Eastwood's film titles from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly to For a Few Dollars More. Benitez must hope it is not Hang 'Em High.

* Gokdeniz Karadeniz's 73rd-minute winner gave Rubin Kazan a surprising 2-1 victory at Barcelona in Group F. Aleksandr Ryazantsev put the Russian champions ahead after just 75 seconds before Zlatan Ibrahimovic equalised in the 48th minute. Yaya Touré's header hit the post for Barcelona in the fourth minute of injury time.