Benitez keeps up the heat

Hull 1 Liverpool 3
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The Independent Football

Rafa Benitez might have not been quite so philosophical had he known Manchester United were just a little more than an hour away from one of those eruptions which leave rivals bemused and dismayed at the futility of their lives. Perhaps as vitally, he hadn't seen the penalty decision which would help give United their latest impetus.

Still, it was a remarkable performance by the Liverpool manager after this edgy preservation of a challenge to the leaders.

Rafa was so relaxed he might have been sittin' on the dock of the bay rather than the rim of the United volcano.

He had a shrug and a smile for all the recent convulsions of his tumultuous season, not least the recent gang-up by Sir Alex Ferguson and his acolyte Sam Allardyce. Running like a thread through every declaration, was the sense of a manager who, win or lose in the last strides of the race with United, believes his team have come to a new competitive level.

Said Benitez: "I think if you analyse the season it is not bad. We have four games now to finish the season and we're still in the title race so I think it's very positive.

"Normally, when you play this level you know that at the end of the season you will play for trophies and can lose, but if you analyse it all I think the team has done very well, especially with [Steven] Gerrard and [Fernando] Torres out for a lot of games. The squad has shown that it is better and we are in a position we haven't been in before – we are contending."

There were times when Liverpool hardly looked certain to glean the maximum 12 points required to keep United fighting to the end but you could understand easily enough the drift of Benitez's thinking. The old Liverpool might have been ensnared by the passion and moments of startling aggression by Hull – as they were at Anfield in a 2-2 draw earlier in the season. The new Liverpool, however, seem to have acquired a deeper self-belief, even when their best touch, plus Gerrard, is absent.

Though Xabi Alonso was some way from his most persuasive, he did muster the authority to give Liverpool a fortuitous lead at half-time with a stunning drive when his free-kick came back to him and when Hull rallied with extraordinary commitment after the dismissal of Caleb Folan, Dirk Kuyt's nagging aggression remained unabated. His goals came either side of an extraordinary piece of football by Hull, which saw substitute Bernard Mendy, such a force in the team's shock troop arrival in the top league, sweep by an opponent and send out a cross-field pass to fellow sub Daniel Cousin in a style worthy of a young Bobby Charlton, and Geovanni, another lion of the autumn, devouring the resulting cross.

Hull manager Phil Brown, who had been left aghast by Folan's anarchic reaction to Martin Skrtel's obstruction, was so heartened by this burst of defiance he said it filled him with pride – and renewed hope of beating the drop. "I think we can win two of our last four games with that kind of spirit and quality of football – and I think that would be enough."

Benitez's optimism was necessarily a little more stretched, and no doubt near to breaking point when United later rose up to consume Spurs, but he was certainly not inclined to a speech of concession. "Even with the great players United have, it is very difficult to guarantee results in the Premier League – you can concede a corner, a free-kick," he said, and this was not to mention the odd dodgy penalty kick. "We have changed, yes – today we assessed the game and I thought we could control it, but it was difficult because they were pushing. But it's a big difference when you know you can win. It's not 'oh, we will lose,' or 'we cannot win' or 'we'll see what happens'. This time we say, 'we can win because we are better than the other team.'"

You wouldn't have thought the title was ebbing – still less that he had emerged from the kind of psychological battle with Ferguson which once left Kevin Keegan at the point of emotional breakdown. "You have more experience than me here in England of these kinds of things. It was so clear to me that I didn't need to say anything."

He didn't insult Allardyce, Benitez said with scarcely a hint even of impatience. "I was addressing Alonso, and not saying the game was over. How can you say that with just 30 minutes of the first half gone? I'd said to Alonso play short, but Alonso crossed and Torres scored. So I say okay, good. Creating something around this? It means maybe people having nothing to do."

He walked off into the bright evening sunshine – and the volcano. Unfortunately, Ferguson had found something else to do. Apparently, it was something to do with a hair-dryer.

Hull City (4-4-1-1): Myhill; Ricketts, Turner, Zayatte, Kilbane; Fagan (Mendy, 62),Marney, Boateng (Manucho, 79), Geovanni; Barmby (Cousin, 62); Folan. Substitutes not used: Duke (gk), Hughes, Garcia, Halmosi.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Insua; Mascherano (El Zhar, 84), Alonso; Kuyt (Dossena, 90),Lucas, Benayoun (Agger, 87); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Aurelio, Ngog.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire).

Booked: Hull Marney, Barmby, Fagan. Liverpool Arbeloa.

Sent off: Hull Folan.

Man of the match: Kuyt.

Attendance: 24,942.