The hoardings which blinked up the message "Visit Spain" seemed necessary on a night when Liverpool shivered and their new Argentine midfielder Maxi Rodriguez sat bundled up in a large red and white scarf, in the stands. Today Rafael Benitez may feel like never before that he is in need of some home comforts and Rodriguez must wonder why on earth he left Atletico Madrid in the first place.
Benitez's season has descended into tatters and one in which the search for silverware – any kind of silverware – now hinges on the Europa League alone. The FA Cup has gone the same way as every trophy available to his side in the same dismal, tepid way and it was hardly surprising the manager did not want to specify what the problems were, last night. He would have been at it for some time, though integral to the shocking demise of a side who were played like champions eight months ago is an inability to defend.
"They had some chances. We had ours. You can't change that," Benitez reflected as he sat amid the wreckage, but there were considerably more of the former and certainly nothing viewed by the 31,000 who had decided that the FA Cup still means something came nearly close to the dazzling moment when Reading's Jobi McAnuff dispossessed Dirk Kuyt, eased beyond Alberto Aquilani – a player who cost £16m more than him but who was consistently inferior – bisected Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher and stood with football's oldest tournament at his feet. The image of ball he rolled away, an inch beyond the right hand post, will probably live with him forever.
It seemed at that moment as if Liverpool would shave the game and not capitulate to the late goals which have become such an affliction and have put them out of the Champions League. But that sense changed in the moment that Yossi Benayoun hacked at Shane Long and referee Phil Dowd pointed – bravely and justifiably – at the penalty spot, with a minute of injury time played. When Gylfi Sigurdsson converted right footed, to the right of Diego Cavalieri, you could just see the belief slipping out of Liverpool. When Long got in ahead of Agger to head in Reading's winner from Bryn Gunnarsson's cross it all but disappeared.
It's departure had been visible in the way that Benayoun shaped up when he was put through one-on-one with Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici in the last minute of the first period of extra time with the opportunity to atone for the penalty. His shot was desperately poor, striking Federici's legs. David Ngog, one of the few players who has grown in this wretched season of Liverpool's, had the same chance in space when Dowd's whistle had signalled the start of the last 15 minutes of play. Again, no power in his shot. Trawl as he might, again and again, through the DVD of this game, Benitez won't find an answer to the psychological affliction which makes Liverpool so vulnerable when the chips are down.
To say that the absence of Steven Gerrard, who did not materialise after half time having strained a hamstring, and Fernando Torres, who twisted his knee after Matthew Mills had bodychecked, left Liverpool shorn of their only creative sources is to repeat the oldest adage about this squad, and an accurate one. Torres wasn't the only who arrived to an eyewatering challenge. Jem Karacen was booked for one on Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt was also left writhing on the turf.
But after Reading had settled they looked by far the greater threat and, with the same starting side which had led in the first encounter in Berkshire, exposed all the defensive weaknesses which mean Liverpool might concede a goal at any time, whatever the opposition. Take the moment Karacen emerged with a ball that he released to Simon Church in the first half. Church cut up Daniel Agger, sent a low cross skidding past the retreating Jamie Carragher and Grzegorz Rasiak couldn't believe his luck. He placed it over the bar with Cavalieri at his mercy. Then Church should have finished, from a deceptive McAnuff cross, that neither Carragher nor Philipp Degen could deal with.
It was all such a contrast to Liverpool's improbable, lucky goal in first-half injury time, when Gerrard's corner was recycled to him and after a one-two with Ngog he released a shot which was deflected in off the unfortunate Ryan Bertrand. Liverpool maintained some of their momentum this created: Aquilani's free-kick rebounded to Agger who fired wide of Federici's left post. But still the aerial weaknesses were evident in the home defence. Ivar Ingimarsson was allowed to get a free head to substitute Brian Howard's cross but could not connect.
And watching all this was Burnley's new manager Brian Laws, expecting a fourth-round tie here on Saturday week and wondering what top flight management is all about. A lot more challenging than this, for sure. He will have enjoyed the drive home from Anfield last night.
Liverpool (4-1-4-1): Cavalieri; Degen (Skrtel, 91), Carragher, Agger, Insua; Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard (Babel, ht), Aquilani, Benayoun, Torres (Ngog, 30). Substitutes not used: Gulacsi (gk), Aurelio, Spearing, Pacheco.
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Gunnarsson, Mills, Ingimarsson, Bertrand; McAnuff, Karacan (Long, 81), Cissé (Howard, 60), Sigurdsson; Rasiak (Kebe, 65), Church. Substitutes not used: Hamer (gk), Tabb, Matejovsky, Pearce.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire)
Reds look to Rodriguez to revive their season
Ahead of last night's game, Liverpool completed the signing of Argentina winger Maxi Rodriguez on a free transfer from Atletico Madrid. The 29-year-old Rodriguez, who has agreed a three and a half year contract, could make his debut at Stoke on Saturday if he receives international clearance.
"We were looking for players with character and a good mentality," said Rafa Benitez. "He can play in three positions – on the right, left or as a second striker. He is good at getting into the box. Every year he gets five to 15 goals from the right side of midfield."
Benitez believes Rodriguez can help save Liverpool's season and, in turn, help his chances of making Argentina's World Cup squad. "I know he was not doing as well as he did in the past at Atletico Madrid, but he is doing well with Argentina and wants to impress for the World Cup."Reuse content