James Lawton: Benitez has Liverpool fans feeling empty, even after eight

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The Independent Football

If you weren't there, it was reasonable to believe that Anfield was a place of rapture this week when the Turkish team Besiktas were slaughtered so comprehensively even Bill Shankly might have felt slightly sated. But it wasn't. For joy, read an unshakeable confusion about what would come next.

Once, after the likes of Ian St John and Tommy Smith had combined with great authority in a routine league match, scouts from Romania checking out their European Cup opposition were hounded from the ground by the triumphant Scottish manager. As they disappeared, shell-shocked into the departing throng, Shankly yelled: "You might like to know the reserves won 6-0."

But that was a time when the hierarchy of Liverpool, their purpose, their personnel, their way of playing, seemed to be written boldly in the sky. It was that which created the swagger of a team marching forward. It was that which made the rapture.

It was certainty. It says everything about Rafa Benitez's Liverpool that even the deluge of eight unanswered goals could not remove for one moment that question which has come to dominate all the coach's work. It lies in the inevitably uncertain speculation about the shape and the membership of his team against Fulham on Saturday

Will Peter Crouch get the chance to build on the confidence which came with his two goals and the joy of being returned to the centre of the action? Will he able to develop an understanding with Andrei Voronin that was becoming all but rampant by the end of the dismantling of Besitkas? Will Yossi Benayoun pick up against Fulham the destructive mood that tore apart the Turks? Who knows?

Benitez, maybe, but almost certainly not yet. In the pubs and on the airwaves of Merseyside the only agreement was that no-one could say. Eight goals had thrilled the senses but it had not exactly cleared the air. Yes, of course, the coach is entitled to his prerogative of knowing what's best, but there is a point when perhaps the mystery of what that might be becomes too deep. Certainly, the spirit of the old "wayside pulpit" joke is as consigned to the past as profoundly as ever. "What will you do when the Lord arrives?" asked the church noticeboard. "Move St John to inside left," was the scrawled reply.

Another hard question: at what point does the credit of a Champions League-winning coach become exhausted? Perhaps when he does not provide a pattern, when an old trust in the evidence of your own eyes begins to dissolve.

The key to everything is a sense of progress. Every putative dynasty has to produce a little evidence. Shankly, Jock Stein, Matt Busby – and more recently Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Jose Mourinho – were never in doubt about their main players, the thrust and identity of their teams. If an important Liverpool player became injured under Shankly, he was in the wilderness. Shankly needed continuity from match to match almost as much as he needed oxygen. It seems sometimes that Benitez's greatest requirement is a new plan, a new stroke of coaching genius.

This provided some of the irony when the Besiktas president, Yildirim Demiroren, suggested there would be a break-up of his team after Tuesday's humiliation. The same thing happened at Liverpool earlier this season not after defeat but a 6-0 evisceration of Derby County, whose competitive nerve in the top flight was shattered so deeply they have shown hardly a hint that one day they might recover.

A winning season is about momentum, about surges of belief. One of these should be the brimming expectation after this week's performance, even after acknowledging the failure of Besitkas to bring with them any of the resilience that went into their victory over Liverpool in Istanbul. But Benitez has yet to hand down the tablets of stone.

Crouch, of all players at Anfield, is entitled to a whiff of encouragement. Benitez picked him out from a sea of scepticism when signing him from Southampton; saw character and a quirky potency, and when all the mockery was done, it was true. Crouch had something to offer, something unchartable, and he showed it comprehensively enough when he came off the bench and enlivened a leaden performance in Turkey to the point of inspiring a goal.

When he put Liverpool into the lead on Tuesday, he encapsulated all of his own vulnerability and strength: he snatched at his first chance, but was resolute about his second. He reminded you that, if his talent is sometimes elusive, it can also be rewarding.

Perhaps because a caution of the spirit has now become ingrained, it was Crouch who was most eager to stress the potential for illusion harboured in that thunderous scoreline. "We still have so much to work to do," he said. But then who will be doing it, who will get the chance to build on the meaning of a record Champions League victory?

One belief is that Dirk Kuyt, for all his labour, has failed to make a sufficiently biting impact; that the future lies in the aggressive potential of the superstar Fernando Torres, the disruptive powers of Crouch and the solid virtues of Voronin, arguably Tuesday's outstanding performer. But what no one, and this includes even the virtuoso Torres, has is a clear idea of when they will be called. It is Benitez's remit – and one that he is beginning to hog to an extraordinary degree. Maybe that was why the joy was not unlimited when the goals poured in at Anfield this week. It's hard, after all, to celebrate your team's future when, even after an 8-0 win, you are still not sure about what and who it is.

Champions League Group A

Results: Marseilles 2 Besiktas 0; Porto 1 Liverpool 1; Besiktas 0 Porto 1; Liverpool 0 Marseilles 1; Besiktas 2 Liverpool 1; Marseilles 1 Porto 1; Liverpool 8 Besiktas 0; Porto 2 Marseilles 1.

Remaining fixtures: 28 November: Besiktas v Marseilles; Liverpool v Porto. 11 December: Marseilles v Liverpool; Porto v Besiktas.

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