Benitez muddled but happy
Portsmouth 2 Liverpool 3
Liverpool twice came from behind before scoring the winner in injury time. That is the hallmark of champions, surely. Well, possibly. Or look at it from the other way. They dominated the game before twice falling behind against a team that has not won for over two months. Isn't that the hallmark of a side that will struggle in the coming weeks against teams even vaguely proficient in the basics of defending a lead?
John Aldridge's reaction when Fernando Torres headed the winning goal showed what victory meant to Liverpool supporters. The former Liverpool striker knows what it is like to win a league championship, and although he was at Fratton Park as a radio commentator, he briefly forgot his day job and jumped and punched the air upon victory as if he was behind David James's goal.
It spoke of relief as much as anything else, after the visitors had made a pig's ear of what should have been a straightforward encounter against a team plainly low on confidence. The fact that Liverpool had re-taken the Premier League lead from Manchester United was almost an after-thought for Aldridge and his fellow fans, given the line-up Rafael Benitez, back to his "Tinkerman" worst, had conjured.
Naturally, by winning, the Liverpool manager was able to defend his choices, which included playing a three-man central defence, plus Fabio Aurelio – a full-back – in a flattish central midfield. Benitez decided to forego his usual two deep-lying defensive midfielders. He then put two attackers behind the lone striker David Ngog.
Jamie Carragher, the captain in place of the injured Steven Gerrard, said it was the first time they had played three at the back this season and it showed when David Nugent – possibly a fraction offside – latched on to Peter Crouch's flick and flicked it over Pepe Reina.
Liverpool had not had much time to prepare for this game, having lost to Everton on Wednesday night in extra-time in a morale and strength-sapping FA Cup replay. Surely, then, with so little time to prepare for a league game which Benitez knew was more important and would much rather win, now was not the time to chuck in a few tactical experiments and in the case of Ngog, players out of their depth.
Not to Benitez, who said: "As a manager you have to decide how your players are after each game. We knew Torres, [Dirk] Kuyt and [Xabi] Alonso were really tired so we wanted to use different players, we changed the system, we moved some players about, it worked really well."
That was clearly not the case, until he brought on Torres and Kuyt. Before that, they had most of the possession, but were increasingly gummed-up in midfield as players bunched together and Ryan Babel and Ngog wandered about to no effect whatsoever. It seemed as if Benitez had been too clever by far.
Then the luck swung. James handled a badly-directed backpass from Peter Crouch and Aurelio converted the indirect free-kick. But then Hermann Hreidarsson headed in from Nadir Belhadj's free-kick, causing panic in the visiting ranks. That led to panic by Sylvain Distin, whose mistake allowed Torres in to set up Kuyt's equaliser.
Torres is, in Benitez's estimation, not fully fit and he is doing weight-training to strengthen his tender hamstrings. To put him on late in this game when still only level was not, as Alan Shearer put it on Match of the Day, good management, it was simply logical and Benitez's only option if he wanted to win. A non-league manager, let alone Liverpool's manager, would not last long if he didn't realise that.
Torres, who scored both goals in the victory over Chelsea last Sunday, showed once more how clever he is, taking up a near-post position in injury-time. Yossi Benayoun picked him out, and James saw the ball fly into his top corner.
While Tony Adams, the Portsmouth manager, had picked his best team and seen it fall fractions short, Benitez had, through choice and circumstance, a half-strength side and seen it scrape through. Benitez said: "Now we have more confidence, maybe we can be there until the end of the season." But, and it must be a conclusion he will acknowledge privately, not with this starting line-up.
Goals: Nugent (62) 1-0; Aurelio (69) 1-1; Hreidarsson (78) 2-1; Kuyt (85) 2-2; Torres (90) 2-3.
Portsmouth (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Hreidarsson; Bassinas, Mullins (Kranjcar, h-t), Davis, Belhadj; Nugent, Crouch. Substitutes not used: Begovic (gk), Lauren, Pamarot, Mvuemba, Kanu, Gekas.
Liverpool (3-4-2-1): Reina; Skrtel, Carragher, Agger; Arbeloa, Mascherano, Aurelio, Dossena (Alonso, 67); Babel (Torres, 76), Benayoun; Ngog (Kuyt, 56). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Hyypia, Riera, El Zhar.
Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).
Booked: Portsmouth: Hreidarsson.
Man of the Match: Benayoun.
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