James Lawton: Benitez's clarion call reinforces thin red line
Monday 26 October 2009
Give it to Rafa Benitez, we must. On arguably the most critical day of his football life, he created an extraordinary emotional response – the kind that used to be routinely called down from the heavens by the founder of the empire which has been shaken to its foundations in recent weeks.
But then Bill Shankly traded on the raising of his team's and his adopted city's spirit – and by surrounding himself with good players.
These had not exactly been seen as the Benitez hallmarks in a run of four defeats but here yesterday, when victory by Manchester United would have extended the gap between the teams to 10 points, he had all the emotion he needed... and just enough good players to exploit an appalling afternoon's work by the reigning champions.
Whether he can build on and, who knows, learn from this example of a team being required to play to its own limits rather than the strict tactical protocols of the man in charge, is now a question quite pivotal to Benitez's future. In the meantime, only the churlish would deny that, between them, the coach and the players had stood and held a red line that had become hazardously thin.
Still, it would be dishonest to suggest that United hadn't betrayed themselves more deeply than at any point since their mystifying collapse in the Champions League final in Rome last spring. In fact, United were at times so inept that Liverpool might have got by with any old jumble of pros plus the man who put them to the sword with a piece of trademarked, exquisite action that cast further question marks against Rio Ferdinand's ranking among the world's top half-dozen defenders.
Fernando Torres discounted the attention of Ferdinand with some contempt before driving home the opening goal past a previously underworked Edwin van der Sar, and when he came off near the end, with the devotion of at least half the city secured for the foreseeable future, it was ironic that one of the players who has been caught in the glare of criticism that Anfield is inhabited by too many mediocre players, delivered the coup de grâce.
Torres, like the injured Steven Gerrard in the stands, threw up his arms when the gangling David Ngog ran in unopposed to make it 2-0, and he was joining a thunderous consensus that indeed the crisis had passed. Naturally, Benitez made the point with some vigour when he faced his doubters, and no one could question his right. When the pressure was at its height, his team undoubtedly produced a degree of momentum that was guaranteed to bulldoze all but the most committed and talented of teams. United, it became increasingly clear as Liverpool rebuilt their self-belief, qualified on only one of those counts this day – and quite often the talent was as elusive as any evidence of force or commitment.
Naturally, Benitez didn't change his normal operating style. His language was the usual torrent of concern and impatience in the technical area, but for whatever reason his players had plainly been touched by the need to produce a heightened performance, if not only for the salvation of their manager, possibly the minimal disruption in their own lives.
Predictably in the absence of Gerrard, Liverpool's hopes hinged hugely on the ability of Torres to spread sufficient terror among the United defenders – and hope among his team-mates. This he did frequently and with the additional bonus that the referee, Andre Marriner, also slipped under his spell, United's defender Patrice Evra being handed a yellow soon after a blatant dive by the Spaniard.
Liverpool also benefited from the strange decision of Marriner to allow Jamie Carragher to stay on the field after he had, as the last defender, hauled down United substitute Michael Owen. Nemanja Vidic, who collected his second yellow card when he brought down Dirk Kuyt, albeit in the Liverpool player's half, pointed out the discrepancy to Carragher shortly before he marched off the field early, for the third successive time against Liverpool. If there was any comfort at all for the big man from the Balkans, on this occasion he had not withered under the heat of the Torres game. Indeed, there were times when Vidic and Paul Scholes were almost alone in their belief that they had the means to bring further anxiety to the hearts of their most bitter rivals.
This is not to question the legitimacy of Liverpool's victory – or the force of their reaction to suggestions that they have become misplaced in the top echelon of both the domestic and the European game.
However, when you took away the dynamism of Torres, the typically probing craft of Yossi Benayoun, and the confidence of a Javier Mascherano who must have been stunned by the lack of menace produced by some of his more august opponents, any deep belief in the quality of the Liverpool squad would surely have provoked some concerned investigation.
Ditto, though, on this occasion, United. Apart from Ferdinand's latest incidence of being overwhelmed at a critical moment, Dimitar Berbatov was the principal source of worry. In the first half he produced a couple of silky touches, and the usual air of a man about to take off into another dimension, and then produced possibly the most overpriced piece of football action in the history of the game. We are told he sometimes frets over his lack of impact. Yesterday, you were bound to ask: "How can we tell?"
There is never much mystery, however, about the mood and the style of Rafa Benitez. Yesterday he had plainly reorganised his football world. How permanently is, of course, an entirely different question.
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