Benitez lost in the fog of denial

Portsmouth 2 Liverpool 0
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The Independent Online

It may be time to examine the small print on Rafael Benitez's "guarantee" that Liverpool will finish in the top four this season. It is beginning to look as reliable as the ones handed out from a fly-by-night stall on Oxford Street.

This was not just a poor result, their ninth defeat in 17 matches, it was another anaemic performance. Benitez later raged at the 44th-minute dismissal of Javier Mascherano, insisting it "changed the game", but his team were already behind to Nadir Belhadj's 33rd-minute strike.

In the closing minutes Frédéric Piquionne scored an equally spectacular goal to confirm a victory which is as significant to Portsmouth as it is damaging to Liverpool. The troubled club (Portsmouth, that is) will climb off the bottom of the table tomorrow night unless West Ham, who are now ahead only on goals scored, avoid defeat at home to Chelsea.

Avram Grant was naturally jubilant, waving to all corners of Fratton Park at the final whistle. "We played well, we have belief," he said. In truth Portsmouth often played better under his predecessor, Paul Hart; the difference was in the finishing. A team that could not convert sitters is now volleying goals from implausible angles.

Liverpool, by contrast, look caught in a downward spiral. The good players lack form or fitness and the ordinary ones are not making up in commitment what they lack in talent. Benitez appears to be in denial, like a naughty child who's been told Santa's not coming this year.

"We were in control of the game then came the sending-off," he said. When it was put to him Liverpool were already losing he responded, "We had plenty of possession and had created a couple of chances."

The sending-off was, he said, "a mistake" but he added referee Lee Mason was "perfect", repeating the comment several times. Earlier this season Benitez was "warned as to his future conduct with regards to interviews and press briefings" after making a point of wiping his glasses when being asked about a contentious refereeing decision in the defeat to Tottenham. He added he was not worried about his job, only "the next game".

Benitez had problems even before kick-off when Alberto Aquilani, the £20m near-invisible man, was ruled out with a calf injury. However, only he and Albert Riera were absent from the first-choice XI.

A two-tone pitch, with one side having softened in the sun, made for a slow start as both teams found their footing. With Piquionne and Lucas spurning half-chances it was 20 minutes before either goal was seriously threatened. Then Fernando Torres, still looking short of full fitness, but exuding class with nearly every touch, received the ball on the edge of his box, shifted his weight to wrong-foot his markers, and curled a shot just over the bar. The Spaniard came close to turning in a cross from Andrea Dossena a few minutes later as Liverpool's superior passing took effect.

Pompey had offered little in response, thus it was a shock when they took the lead. An uncommonly fluid move developed down the right with Belhadj finding compatriot Hassan Yebda. His cross eventually found Kevin Boateng whose shot was parried by Pepe Reina and looped up. Glen Johnson attempted to clear but could only head it sideways, right into the path of Belhadj who, with his weaker right foot, lashed a fierce shot past Reina.

Liverpool should have levelled seven minutes later as Daniel Agger rose unmarked to meet Steven Gerrard's free-kick, but he headed over. It was a crucial miss for soon after Mascherano clattered heavily into Tal Ben Haim as if to show the defender, who was showboating, some manners. Mascherano's knee ploughed into Ben Haim's midriff and his flailing arm caught the Israeli's neck. When Mascherano was finally helped to his feet – he may have medial ligament damage – he was shown the red card. Dismissed in October against Manchester United he will be banned for four matches.

Liverpool incurred further bookings, among them the increasingly isolated and frustrated Torres as they temporarily lost their discipline. They eventually created a chance when Lucas robbed Jamie O'Hara midway through the half. Gerrard drove forward and ultimately had a shot which deflected twice before Asmir Begovic brilliantly clawed it away from goal.

With eight minutes remaining Boateng beat Agger on the flank, Piquionne rolled Jamie Carragher and volleyed past Reina. It was a grim way for Carragher to commemorate his 600th Liverpool appearance. Each previous centennial milestone had been marked by a clean sheet, but that was usually in better teams.

Attendance: 20,534

Referee: Lee Mason

Man of the match: Brown

Match rating: 7/10