James Lawton: Benitez left running low on credit by bankruptcy of Liverpool's game plan

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The Independent Online

It was a little early on a Sunday for the blood and sand of the bullfight but for Rafa Benitez, the embattled football man from Madrid, there was certainly no shortage of moments of truth.

The most telling one came when Carlos Tevez delivered the winner when Liverpool's defence had been utterly bamboozled by a set-piece manoeuvre United had plainly polished on their training pitch. Wayne Rooney found an ocean of space outside the crowded box, Ryan Giggs guided his corner to his feet, and though the most instinctive defender on the field, Jamie Carragher, saw the danger, he did not do so nearly quickly enough.

Tevez, who in many ways defines the difference between champions and mere contenders, swept home the ball that had been driven into a forest of defenders.

It was a moment of crushing denouement for Benitez. He prides himself on a tactical feel that some believe is delivered too excessively for the natural working of a team likely to develop genuine rhythm and confidence.

This was a hard, raw game but it did contain plenty of what had made it such a compelling prospect. It examined quite thoroughly Liverpool's pretensions to a meaningful place in the Premier League race and Benitez's chances both of saving his job and persuading his disaffected American owners that he should be entrusted with another large slice of seed money.

Benitez's increasing agitation in the technical area told its own story of gathering tension. His meeting with George Gillett and Tom Hicks last night was unlikely to have been filled with light and optimistic banter. The truth is that any credit extended to the Liverpool manager by the Champions League lifeline achieved against a feeble Marseilles in midweek was systematically demolished. United, returning to the leadership of the Premier League for at least a few hours before the outcome of the other half of the Sabbath showdown between Arsenal and Chelsea, did not hit their most sublime levels of adventure or authority. However, they did have the luck of men who knew, absolutely, the priorities of the day.

Apart from Tevez's decisive strike, he, Cristiano Ronaldo and Rooney promised rather more than they achieved. However, in the vital matter of discipline and a coherent game plan they were mostly operating in a different league.

It also helped that at the dawn of Fabio Capello's England regime Rio Ferdinand decided to put on a masterclass of assured defence. Sometimes Ferdinand does an unsurpassable impression of an absent-minded defensive professor. But with the threat of Fernando Torres's recently devastating form almost written across the leaden sky, the England centre-half was throughout the game just about the last word in security.

With his central partner Nemanja Vidic in his most relentless mode, it meant that Liverpool were consumed by waves of frustration, if not outright futility. Long before the end Torres, so exquisitely precise when scoring in the Stade Vlodrome last week, was huffing and fretting his way to oblivion.

Does Benitez, despite his Champions League triumph two years ago and the appearance in another final, face the same dismal prospect? It is hard to imagine that past success, and the still warm regard in which he is held by the Kop, was so easily disregarded when the money men pulled up their chairs. However, this was a business meeting rather than the indulgence of the football man who seems increasingly inclined to go his own way and on his own terms.

Such an approach is all very well when a consistent pattern of success is unfolding out on the field. This, it was confirmed by the assurance with which United's defence handled their task, is simply not happening. Torres and Gerrard were imperious enough against Marseilles but here they were almost invisible. In the second half, when the need was for bite and urgent intelligence, there was only a tide of chance and speculation. Peter Crouch came on in his usual role, as searcher for some redemption at the end of a largely incoherent effort.

Of course Liverpool have hit some veins of gold this season, notably with their victory at Newcastle last month, but too often they seem to be searching for some basic understanding. Defeat at Reading last week was a catastrophe; this was a blow that left serious hopes of a desperately required challenge for the title as far away as ever.

For United there was only a hard sense of a job done with some considerable efficiency. Their manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, had no illusions about the quality of the game, likening it to the usual tribal battle between the clubs. But he could not be questioned when he suggested that his team had enjoyed a distinct edge on all the better football that had been played.

He looked like a man a thousand miles away from a disturbing question. Benitez, you suspect, would be grateful for the smallest fraction of such a margin when dealing with seriously impatient owners.

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