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.

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee