James Lawton: Even as they stumble, Liverpool's progress under Benitez is undeniably impressive

Houllier sneered at the criticism from old players, Benitez absorbs their barbs
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Maybe we expected too much, too soon from Liverpool but that really isn't any excuse for the scorn currently being heaped upon the head of Rafa Benitez and his players. At no time have they declared themselves anything other than a team in the making. Admittedly, winning the Champions' League was a touch showy, but even then the reaction of Benitez and his boys was a model of decorum and modest rationality in the Istanbul dawn.

Steven Gerrard's winners' medal hung from his neck but his expression was more that of a kid on Christmas morning than a conqueror of Europe.

That in itself was something of an achievement, given the distance Gerrard and his team-mates had covered in such a short time. It's hard to know quite what his counterpart at Manchester United, Gary Neville, would have made of the occasion, but the best guess is that a potential bonfire of vanity would have been built so high it would have dwarfed the Blue Mosque.

No, there were no triumphant speeches beyond a certain legitimate wonder at having come back from three goals down against the likes of Maldini, Kaka and Shevchenko.

Interestingly, just a few weeks earlier Liverpool had signally failed to haul themselves back into a game against the doomed Southampton, a shortfall of excellence which persuaded Alan Hansen, of all people, to declare that it was the worst Liverpool performance he had ever seen. That, given the relentless decline of the team's creativity in previous years, despite the spending of more than a £100m by Benitez's predecessor Gérard Houllier, was a damning statement of shattering impact.

But, again, Benitez said that he was involved in a work in progress. He had the good sense to recognise that what Hansen said was essentially correct; Liverpool were wretched at Southampton, and in quite a few other Premiership places. So there was no petulant urge to dress old wounds.

Houllier sneered at criticism from old players who had made a wonderful tradition. Benitez absorbed their barbs.

Now Liverpool are enduring their worst run under Benitez - one win in six matches, three defeats - and the result, already, is a picture being painted not of a stumble in impressive progress but outright decline.

This is essentially absurd. Liverpool have successfully negotiated a vast tract of difficult terrain in the coach's first 18 months, lifted the horizon to an extraordinary degree, and the reluctance of some critics to recognise this is a fact which does not require too much psychological probing. The greatest charge against Liverpool, apart from an endemic failure to convert anything like a respectable number of chances in front of goal, is that they have failed to deliver on the most exciting promise.

It was that they had built sufficiently on their triumph in Istanbul to bring competitive football back to the Premiership.

Chelsea established at Stamford Bridge last Sunday that it was, beyond the shimmer of a doubt, a romantic illusion. Charlton underlined the point in midweek and at high noon today Wigan Athletic will no doubt be hell-bent on compounding the embarrassment. Then, on Tuesday, Arsenal will arrive at Anfield optimistic about making an important stride towards Champions' League qualification. More than anything it is a time for holding the nerve - and maybe taking a realistic look at the development of a team plainly in need of four of five replacements before they can genuinely believe in their ability to challenge not just Chelsea but also Manchester United.

The core of Liverpool's team is impressive enough. Reina, Finnan, Riise, Carragher, Gerrard and Alonso have all, to varying degrees, established their quality. Peter Crouch remains an act of faith with some clear possibilities, but none that can be completely detached from the status of a football man's hunch.

Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cissé are, respectively, not fast enough nor good enough, Robbie Fowler has to rehabilitate himself in the most dramatic and dedicated way, and Garcia is, no more or no less, a football trinket, something that glitters from time to time but simply lacks the necessary weight. Sami Hyypia has stretched the string of his career in the top flight almost certainly as far as it will go, and Harry Kewell is nothing so much as a taunting enigma, too good to discard, too irresolute to inspire more than long-shot optimism.

Those are the realities that must inform any realistic assessment of Liverpool's effort to draw closer to Chelsea. Plainly, Benitez has the nous to remain competitive in Europe, as he has proved four times against Chelsea, much to the rage of Mourinho - but his Premiership touch remains less sure. He needs a Michael Owen, beyond question; the certainty of goals will always be the greatest psychological asset of any team, and whatever the reason for the failure to move for the former Anfield favourite, his absence becomes week by week less a regret than a raging rebuke.

On Merseyside the word on Benitez is ambivalent. The Champions' League debt is freely acknowledged - "in Valencia I had to wait three years for the fans to sing my name, and by then I had won two league titles and a Uefa Cup," he reflects - but there is growing exasperation at the current stall. It is what can happen when hopes are raised too high, too quickly.

The more impatient fans might reflect on the reaction of the old hero Ian St John when the Houllier regime finally crumbled two years ago. He thought to himself as he walked away from Anfield, and past the statue of Bill Shankly, that he had just seen precisely the opposite of all that Liverpool Football Club was supposed to represent.

He said later, "The Liverpool of Shankly and then Paisley played with passion and creativity and tremendous panache. The team of Gérard Houllier I had just seen amounted to the very antithesis of that.

"I had looked at the terraces and, most keenly, The Kop. There was silence. It was as though Anfield was filled not with the most animated fans in football but zombies."

Shankly, and Bob Paisley, the 10th anniversary of whose death it is when Arsenal arrive in town, would surely have also noted the difference. Liverpool have made some halting strides, no doubt, but they are still filled with the highest ambition. That, in such a short time, remains a stunning achievement.

Where there's smoke there's ire over Wembley delay

Stories that some workers at Wembley Stadium are toking up more enthusiastically than finishing off the job cannot be a total surprise, given the looming embarrassment of playing another FA Cup final down in Cardiff. But what is the wider explanation for the lack of official concern in this scandal of inefficiency? It is, you have to believe, a failure of national will.

We are the nation which prided itself on winning the chance to inspire the youth of the world at the Olympics of 2012. The eloquence of Lord Coe was stirring, the warmth of the support from politicians might have been touching if you were able to batter your way through the cynicism which inevitably springs up whenever they attach themselves to such projects. But what does it say about our prospects of producing a gleaming show when it takes a decade to plan and produce a new national stadium that might just rival something thrown up in, say, South Korea, in a fraction of that time?

We talked a brilliant game in Singapore when the Olympics were awarded. Back home, the danger is that once again it will all go up in, well, smoke.

Writing on the wall for Rooney the super scribe

The potential World Cup star and record-breaking author Wayne Rooney - it is reported that the journals of various stages of his life have been auctioned off at around £5m - tells us: "Of course we can win the World Cup. Everyone in the team knows we are good enough to do the business."

Here, for what it is worth, is a publishing tip. Whatever vast celebrity you bring to the project, some plot-lines get a little played out. Into this category surely is the one about England going off to win the World Cup. It has been trotted out, spuriously, for nigh-on 40 years now.

Wayne says that beating Argentina 3-2 in Geneva a few months ago is one source of huge confidence. The trouble is there was a huge twist in that story, and if one remembers right it was the Argentinian coach, not Sven Goran Eriksson, who withdrew his best players, including the magical Juan Riquelme, while coasting to victory.

On his publishing contracts alone, Rooney could live the rest of his life in the deepest luxury without ever kicking a ball again. This is great for a JK Rowling. Less good for a kid still looking for his first trophy.