Benitez scores on content over style

Liverpool 1 - Southampton 0
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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez says he would mark Liverpool at "seven or eight out of 10" at the halfway stage of the season and here was a performance that only underlined his point. Rampant in tearing apart West Bromwich Albion on Boxing Day, the Anfield side came up against another opponent fighting a relegation battle but found winning by the minimum margin something of a struggle.

Southampton had beaten them twice last season and further embarrassment was spared here only because a rare moment of quality happened to produce a goal, just before half time. Otherwise, although a late assault on the visitors' goal did come close to yielding more scores, it was a Liverpool performance that repeatedly tried to splutter into life but invariably failed.

The advantage carved out by Xabi Alonso and Florent Sinama-Pongolle ought to have been a platform from which they could carve out another comfortable victory but instead proved to be a lead to which they anxiously clung as Southampton, responding to Harry Redknapp's constant animated urgings from the technical area, fought until the last breath. With Chelsea due at Anfield on Saturday, Liverpool could hardly choose a less opportune moment to go off the boil, although Benitez remains adamant his side can beat anyone on their own home turf.

Benitez made four changes, omitting Milan Baros after the Czech striker suffered a minor hamstring strain at West Bromwich, and leaving Dietmar Hamann among the substitutes, along with Antonio Nuñez and Djimi Traoré. But Luis Garcia and Alonso returned with the promise of flair and creativity.

Yet Liverpool's form was below the standards Benitez has set, possession given away too easily, moves breaking down through inaccurate passing.

It was a little ironic, then, after Southampton had succeeded for most of the first half in disrupting any attempts by the home side to achieve any measure of rhythm that the deadlock-breaking goal should stem from a pass of supreme accuracy and timing.

Unsurprisingly it came from the boot of Alonso, whose creative talents in midfield have so complemented the dynamism of Steven Gerrard. Seizing possession from Dexter Blackstock in centre-field, Alonso judged Sinama-Pongolle's forward movement to perfection, bisecting the Southampton defence with a pass so well timed the young Frenchman was able to strike it first time. His finish, moreover, was equally good, giving the goalkeeper Antti Niemi no chance.

Gerrard later set up John Arne Riise to thump the ball against the bar. Neil Mellor and Garcia brought saves from Niemi in the final minutes - but a win by two or three goals would have flattered Liverpool.

Benitez confirmed that activity in the transfer window is imminent. The Real Madrid striker Fernando Morientes and his former Valencia charge, Pablo Aimar, are thought to be the likeliest targets.

The absence of James Beattie from the Southampton side was significant. "We have three clubs interested in signing James, two of whom have made offers," Redknapp said. "I spoke to James before the game and he said he would be interested in going if the right opportunity came along so I felt it was not worth the risk of playing him and him getting injured.

"If we are going to do business I'd like it to be on 1 January so I have the chance to use the money we get to strengthen my squad."

Liverpool (4-4-2): Dudek; Finnan (Diao, 28), Carragher, Hyypia, Warnock; Garcia (Hamann, 86) Alonso, Gerrard, Riise; Sinama-Pongolle, Mellor (Nuñez, 68). Substitutes not used: Traore, Harrison (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): Niemi; Telfer, Jakobsson, Higginbotham, Cranie; Prutton, Oakley (A Svensson, 58), Delap, McCann; Ormerod, Blackstock (Phillips, 65). Substitutes not used: Smith (gk), Yahia, Folly.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire).

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