James Lawton: Benitez walks alone and directionless in the sad shadow of Shankly

The situation with Aquilani is becoming less a puzzle and more a scandal.
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The worrying thing for Liverpool, if we can put it so mildly in these most desperate of circumstances, is that at last they found at least some of the best of themselves.

They had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard streaming on goal; they found for a little while much of the bite that has been so elusive for so long.

But there is yet again a withering question to ask Rafa Benitez.

This one has a potentially terminal ring to it. It wants to know, if this was indeed the best of Liverpool, if he was able to field his strongest team, give or take the mysterious continuing bench-warming of £20m Alberto Aquilani, where does it leave a club drifting remorselessly away from its old place among the elite of English and European football?

Not long into the second half of a match which Arsenal, despite lacking their front-line strikers Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner, were able to transform with almost contemptuous ease, there was a cruel answer indeed.

It was that Liverpool are running close to bankruptcy. They had no response of consequence to the superb reanimation of Arsenal, after a half-time in which Arsène Wenger's men must also have been at least glimpsing the possibility that they were locked into a futility only underlined by the weekend frailties of Manchester United and Chelsea. Liverpool were leaden, even surly in their frustration, and if there was any need to underline the sense of a team which had utterly lost its way it was provided by the sight of Xabi Alonso sitting in the stand, and Aquilani sitting on the bench.

Whether or not the Italian will ever provide the kind of force, the sheer game-gripping panache of Alonso is a question far too premature, based on the evidence he has been allowed to provide since we were told he had become medically fit to play so long after his arrival at Anfield.

But there is a deeper point and it is one that was currently hovering over the Liverpool manager like a bird of prey.

If you decide to part with Alonso or, to be generous, refuse to strive publicly and passionately to prevent his departure, how can the leadership the player provided be allowed to slide into a kind of vacuum ever since he swopped the shirt of Liverpool for Real Madrid?

Maybe in time Aquilani will fill something of the need to give Liverpool some shape and rhythm, especially after they achieve something of an advantage over a playmaking team like Arsenal, as they did when the troubling uncertainties of Manuel Almunia spilt the ball at the feet of Dirk Kuyt. But football, if you see yourselves as contenders, is not about tomorrow but today and the situation with Aquilani is becoming less a puzzle and more a scandal.

Certainly, he has confirmed the reputation he enjoys back home in Italy. He is neat and sharp with skill and, with something of a run in the first team, who knows, he may also be influential. But then, by the time it happens Liverpool may well have a whole set of new priorities, chiefly the one of filling holes left by such disenchanted superstars as Gerrard and Torres.

In the first half, particularly, they played both with splendid application and much of their old élan. But long before the end their body language was doing rather more than murmur the possibility that they were part of a lost cause.

That this was becoming their certain fate no doubt had much to do with the spectacular upgrading of Arsenal's performance, especially in the way Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri suddenly saw the need to become much more relevant and Andrei Arshavin, who spent almost the entire first half bouncing off the likes of Daniel Agger and Jamie Carragher, reminded us there is no sweeter finishing touch in all of football.

Arsenal needed the win quite as much as Liverpool but for different reasons. They had to persuade themselves that they could indeed exploit the lost ground of Chelsea and United, and that the talk of their one day winning a major prize, rather than merely providing the most dazzling beautification in English football, had some basis in reality.

This they did, surely, with the assurance that came in the second half. Arsenal, having looked disconcerted, almost cowed by the force of Liverpool's opening assault, found a composure that marks the best of their work. They ran, they took up space intelligently, and Liverpool could do nothing but bluster their way into deeper crisis.

That such a denouement should come on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Shankly tradition is just one of the sadder aspects of what is happening at Anfield.

Mostly it is about a breakdown not just in confidence but in a way of playing. There is no true point of focus, no sense of a team with options beyond the individual brilliance of their two leading players. The rest, we have to say again, is mediocrity. Some of it is worthy and driven, but it is still mediocre. It was a worry guaranteed to appal Shankly and plainly it is beginning to have the same effect on many of the Liverpool fans who sing "You'll Never Walk Alone", then drift away to the turnstiles before the end in another statement of dismay and disillusion.

For the greatest winners in the history of English football it is increasingly hard not to believe that time has already run out.