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?
Arts and Entertainment
From Mean Girls to Mamet: Lindsay Lohan
theatre
Sport
Nathaniel Clyne (No 2) drives home his side's second goal past Arsenal’s David Ospina at the Emirates
footballArsenal 1 Southampton 2: Arsène Wenger pays the price for picking reserve side in Capital One Cup
News
Mike Tyson has led an appalling and sad life, but are we not a country that gives second chances?
peopleFormer boxer 'watched over' crash victim until ambulance arrived
Arts and Entertainment
Geena Davis, founder and chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media
tv
News
i100
Travel
travelGallery And yes, it is indoors
Arts and Entertainment
The Tiger Who Came To Tea
booksJudith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed'
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
John Terry, Frank Lampard
footballChelsea captain sends signed shirt to fan whose mum had died
News
people
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

Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

BBC Television Centre

A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

My George!

Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world