Benitez blames players for slump in form

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The Independent Football

Liverpool stopped "getting away with it" on Wednesday night. A series of fitful performances had been masked by results, but this time there was no escape as they lost their unbeaten record to a Marseilles team which had won only two matches previously this season.

In their last three Premier League matches Liverpool had scored once, at Wigan on Saturday, and that game could have been lost had the linesman been sharper. In this period they also drew 1-1 in Porto being outplayed even before Jermaine Pennant's dismissal reduced them to 10 men.

In the match programme for the Marseilles match Steven Gerrard said, "because of the start we have made, if we draw a couple of games it is described as a mini-crisis. Reality says it's a promising start to the campaign." He had a point, but now, after one win in five scrappy matches, in the Champions League and Premier League, Liverpool could fairly be described as in "mini-crisis" mode.

That was certainly the response of the supporters, who do not often boo their own team off at Anfield, and Rafael Benitez. He was scathing about his team's performance, pointedly deflecting criticism of his rotation policy by noting "it is not the changes, it is big players not playing well". This was taken to be a reference to Gerrard and Fernando Torres, whose omissions are normally highlighted whenever Liverpool struggle in their absence.

Gerrard was ordinary on Wednesday. Benitez had already noted that he was enduring a slump in form. He may also have been more affected by a car accident on Monday, which left a 10-year-old boy with a broken leg, than he let on, or maybe even realised. Mohamed Sissoko's abysmal display alongside did not help. Only Benitez will know why he omitted Javier Mascherano. The Argentine would have been just the player to smother Mathieu Valbuena, whose movement had been troubling Liverpool long before he scored what proved the winner. "We tried to change things at half-time but the players did not change," said Benitez darkly.

Eric Gerets, his counterpart, had no such problems. "We were well organised – we have followed the coach's instructions," said the midfielder Benoit Cheyrou.

Where, aside from the obvious answer of Istanbul, to play Besiktas in the next group game, do Liverpool go from here?

"We are making it tough for ourselves but there's still four games in which we can get enough points," said centre-back Jamie Carragher. "We've got a big, strong squad and the players have proved over the last few years that we are very good in this competition."

There was less certainty, however, when he added: "I don't know what's going wrong in Europe at the moment. It's difficult to put your finger on it."

Goalkeeper Pepe Reina, the only par performer, said: "We have to sort it out. Everything went wrong. It was disappointing because we never play like this. I don't know if we are more focused on the League but we need to learn from these mistakes. We have to talk about it, analyse and stay calm. There is pressure but there's always pressure to win when you wear a Liverpool shirt."

"We must improve – we must show our character now," said Benitez. Some form of continuity in team selection would seem logical. The Spaniard has now made 62 changes over 12 matches this season, and used 34 substitutes.

Benitez is right to argue that, in a long season, players need to be used carefully. Liverpool's ability to peak in the later stages of the Champions League under him, when Chelsea and Manchester United falter, suggests he knows what he is doing. That said Liverpool, unlike their rivals, have been able to ease off in the Premier League, having faded from title contention.

Which prompts the thought that there may be a silverware lining. The overwhelming desire at Anfield is for a 19th domestic League title, their first since 1990. The length of the wait is extraordinary given Liverpool had won 11 championships in the previous 18 seasons. An early exit in Europe could significantly enhance their chances, especially if their rivals progress.

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