Benayoun lifts spirits for Benitez Real test

Liverpool 2 Sunderland 0
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The Independent Football

The look on Rafael Benitez's face last night revealed that it will take a lot more than one win to erase the crashing disappointment of a title lost.

Third Liverpool might be and level on points with Chelsea but you could have been forgiven for thinking they had been relegated as he tried to describe why west London is feeling a nascent excitement so sorely missing in L4. "I think because we have lost [to Middlesbrough] the other day everybody was thinking about those three points," Benitez said. "We were in a very good position ... all season. People were expecting a bit more than they have now."

Liverpool have salvaged some respectability for now and though thoughts are reserved, as usual come springtime at Anfield, for a solitary, jug-eared trophy, there was something to take into combat with Real Madrid next Tuesday. David Ngog is no prototype Fernando Torres: there is nothing clinical to go with his pace and enthusiasm. But his first league goal, scored at the Kop end on his first home start, at least provides a font of confidence, lest Torres has not recovered in time for Liverpool's defence of their 1-0 win in Madrid. "He was doing a good job," the Spaniard said of the 19-year-old, which was effusive by his own standards last night.

Yossi Benayoun is also enjoying a more fertile period than any other since he joined Liverpool from West Ham two years ago. He has been more frustrated than most with fleeting appearances but a goal last night to go with the winner he scored in the Bernabeu capped a valuable, if not overwhelming, performance. "The most important thing for me is to play more games and then it's up to me," Benayoun said. Albert Riera also offered a threat as the game wore on.

Though Sunderland's defence capitulated for both goals in a fashion not befitting a team that had previously lost one in seven, Liverpool will certainly enjoy more convincing wins than this. Benitez's need, as he sought to improve on a stuttering run which has brought his side 10 points from seven games, to deploy Javier Mascherano in the right back role which Jamie Carragher appears to be unwilling take up, seemed to sum up the current mood around Anfield. The sight of Carragher, gesturing to Pepe Reina to leave his line after Kenwyne Jones had spun past both central defenders near the half-way line and sprinted through on goal after three minutes reinforced it.

Jones' finish was a miserable one – the striker just did not seem to believe he had the means to finish the move – and it was defining moment. "He should have scored," reflected a rueful Ricky Sbragia. "He made it himself – and if you come here and go one up you've got something to hold on to. Liverpool may have thrown caution to the wind."

Liverpool looked equally incapable of finishing against Sunderland's deep, counter-attacking game and the breakthrough, seven minutes after the interval, arrived in spite of their best efforts to blow it. Steven Gerrard's superb, 15-yard race to meet Albert Riera's cross was the defining part of the move though he got only half contact on the header to find Ngog, unmarked, who netted with a near miskick.

Liverpool's second was even more of a gift, Ngog hoisting a ball back over his head across the area which Marton Fulop, perhaps distracted by his full-back George McCartney, managed only to palm to Benayoun, who calmly tucked the ball away. It was a dire error and Sbragia, who has tended to prefer the Hungarian to Craig Gordon, did well to summon some sympathy for the keeper. "He's done super for us. He won't be watching it again and again," the Sunderland manager said.

Liverpool found some life at last. Riera raced into the box after good interchange with Xabi Alonso but fired over right-footed and with Sunderland forced to 4-4-2, Kuyt was allowed a similar chance.

Benitez said he would be supporting Newcastle United when Manchester United arrive at St James' Park tonight but he did not make pretence of there being a title still to chase. "I want to win, so if United can't win it will be very good for us," he said, with a grimace.

Goals: Ngog (52) 1-0; Benayoun (65) 2-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2) Reina; Mascherano, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Benayoun (El Zhar, 89), Alonso, Gerrard (Babel, 82), Riera; Ngog (Lucas, 69), Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Dossena, Hyypia, Aurelio.

Sunderland (4-1-4-1) Fulop; Ben-Haim, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney; Whitehead; Malbranque (Edwards, 81), Leadbitter (Cissé, 62), Richardson, Reid; Jones (Murphy, 76). Substitutes not used: Gordon (gk), Bardsley, Davenport, Healy.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

Booked: Liverpool Ngog; Sunderland Whitehead.

Man of the match: Benayoun.

Attendance: 41,587.