Benitez wins breathing space with promise of first trophy

As Liverpool's supporters drove down the last stretch of the M1 before turning off for Watford last night, they passed a slightly tatty roadside sign reading "Wembley Stadium". Happy days, they must have thought, when all clubs great and small were brushed aside en route to four successive victories in League Cup finals. No talk then of the first team being insufficiently strong to cope with four competitions.

As Liverpool's supporters drove down the last stretch of the M1 before turning off for Watford last night, they passed a slightly tatty roadside sign reading "Wembley Stadium". Happy days, they must have thought, when all clubs great and small were brushed aside en route to four successive victories in League Cup finals. No talk then of the first team being insufficiently strong to cope with four competitions.

That was the line Rafael Benitez was selling after defeat in the other domestic cup competition at Burnley last week, followed by a shockingly feeble effort at Southampton four days later. Many Merseysiders refused to buy it, but now, at least, the amiable Spanish coach has won himself some time with a first final and the possibility of a first trophy. Start with some cups, Gérard Houllier might have advised him.

Alan Hansen had called last Saturday's first-half performance in the defeat by Southampton the worst by any Liverpool side for 14 years since his retirement. More senior observers felt 40 was nearer the mark, though it was difficult to imagine that Bill Shankly's FA Cup-winning team of 1965 were ever that bad. The old boy would be spinning in his grave at any such suggestion; every bit as much as the notion of fielding a deliberately weakened side in the world's most prestigious domestic competition.

Benitez nevertheless offered a vote of confidence to the squad he had called together for some serious talking on their Sunday off, and will feel justified in having made only the minimum number of changes. Jamie Carragher moved successfully to the centre, where his pace was an improvement on that of the injured Sami Hyypia, who according to Hansen had been "running in quicksand" last weekend.

That consolation was negated by the sight of Mauricio Pellegrino alongside Carragher looking no more comfortably adapted to the English game than at St Mary's. The home crowd thundered a contemptuous "hoof" every time he put his left foot through the ball to clear any danger, real or imagined; and the Argentinian was fortunate to get away with a block on Haneur Bouazza which was right on the edge of the penalty area.

No luckier though than Steve Finnan to escape punishment for his unwise lunge at the same player inside the area as Liverpool brought the first half to a ragged finish. Benitez's satisfaction at the result will be tempered by the knowledge that Milan Baros and Fernando Morientes will need to gel as a much more coherent unit if Manchester United or Chelsea are to beaten in a high-profile final.

Only the best team and strongest performance will be enough at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. But they were singing his name again on the way home past the Wembley signs last night.

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