Benitez bullish despite more Reds woe

Stoke City 1 Liverpool 1: Huth's late equaliser, Kuyt's even later miss and two penalty denials deprive Liverpool of urgently needed win
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The Independent Football

It could have been worse, as Rafa Benitez intimated when he suggested that, in normal circumstances, a point from what is widely acknowledged as a difficult fixture might be a reward he could accept as "not bad".

But these are not normal circumstances for Liverpool. Their season reduced to a desperate attempt to finish in the top four, the team Benitez has built around a too-heavy reliance on Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard needed to earn three points for their manager as urgently as at any time in his tenure.

The outcome, therefore, could not have been much more difficult to swallow, especially after the stadium clock rolled towards the last minute with Liverpool a goal to the good and, it appeared, about to deliver the required result despite being denied an entirely legitimate penalty. But Benitez right now needs luck as much as the commitment of his players and his ran out in the 89th minute as Stoke, rallying in the way they know best by pounding the penalty area with a series of throw-ins, corners and free kicks, managed to crack Liverpool's defensive shield.

On the touchline, the Spaniard's professional inscrutability held as firmly as ever but, even though Liverpool's fans had chanted his name in defiance of some voices calling for him to be sacked, the sag of the shoulders told its own story. "In football sometimes things go for you and sometimes against you," he said afterwards. Then, as if to confirm that sentiment with another painful twist, Dirk Kuyt hit the post with a diving header when he should have snatched the points back for Liverpool, the miss compounded by another rejected penalty appeal.

"It is hard to take because with 89 minutes gone we were winning and then there is another penalty incident that could have changed everything, so we get one point when we could have had three," Benitez added.

This time it was less clear-cut. Where referee Lee Mason looked to have made a poor judgement when he ruled that Lucas, brought down by Danny Higginbotham, had dived in the first half, awarding him a yellow card for his trouble, a perceived push on the same player was more difficult to rule upon. Benitez, however, was hurting. "We should have had two penalties and in my opinion the referee made the wrong decision both times," he said. "But there is nothing you can do to change this and we can only move on to the next challenge and hope to play with the same character."

In that way, at least, Benitez had detected cause for encouragement. Hit badly by injuries, ruling out Gerrard, Torres, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun, Liverpool for much of the game looked on a par with their opponents, whose game in their own admission is built on not much more than honest endeavour. But, after the humiliation of Wednesday's defeat by Reading had added the FA Cup to the Championship, the Champions League and the Carling Cup on Liverpool's "not this year" roll-call of silverware, their manager was pleased not to have been outfought.

But how far they can go with character their only obvious credential remains to be seen. The scruffy goals of the kind bundled in by defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, on a rare start, when Thomas Sorensen dealt poorly with Fabio Aurelio's free kick, will not come along in every game.

Football of quality came only in fleeting moments, with the £20 million Alberto Aquilani again on the bench and Ryan Babel, after his unwise Twittering, left out all together. They looked vulnerable always to set pieces, even though Stoke had lost a key weapon when Rory Delap, their long throw specialist, limped off injured in the first half. Ultimately, when Matt Etherington delivered a corner from the right, Higginbotham headed the ball back across goal and Robert Huth stabbed home from close range.

Benitez did not dwell on negatives, though. "The main thing today was to show character and react and in that way the players were fantastic, they worked very, very hard," he said.

Attendance: 27,247

Referee: Lee Mason

Man of the match: Lucas

Match rating: 6/10