Benitez warms up for title tilt

Fulham 0 Liverpool 1
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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez, as befits a modern manager with a degree in physical education, has very firm beliefs as to how his players prepare for and recover from matches.

Among the practices he has instilled at Anfield is a post-match warm-down on the pitch, win or lose. On Saturday, however, his players went without shaking the lactic acid from their muscles before climbing aboard the bus for the long journey home. Were they getting carried away by their last-minute victory at Fulham? No, but their fans were.

For 10 minutes the Liverpool players waited in the tunnel with a view to returning to the Craven Cottage pitch to warm down. Security would not let them. Although it was more than 20 minutes after the final whistle there were still more than 2,000 travelling fans on the Putney End singing "And now you're gonna believe us, we're gonna win the league". Fulham officials knew if those fans, who had ignored public address requests to leave, saw the players re-emerge they would never be able to lock up.

The real message of the singing was that Liverpool fans themselves now believed they would win the championship. It is nearly 19 seasons since the last title, and there have been many false dawns in the intervening years. For a long time by the Thames it began to look as if this season would be another after all. In the first half Liverpool hit the woodwork four times. In the second, with Fulham having regained their poise, they began to labour.

Then, in the 92nd minute, Yossi Benayoun completed an impressive 15-minute cameo with a well-taken winner. The Liverpool bench, Benitez excepted, erupted in joy, substitutes and staff running on to the pitch to join their team-mates in a manner reminiscent of Alex Ferguson's famous embrace with Brian Kidd after Steve Bruce's late, late winner against Sheffield Wednesday all those titles ago. Suddenly they believed again.

There is still some way to go, and, as events at Old Trafford showed yesterday, the outlook can change with bewildering speed. Less than a month ago Liverpool were also-rans. In the match programme a fan, undone by deadlines which presumably preceded the win at Old Trafford, and United's own defeat at the Cottage, said he thought Liverpool would come third.

So no counting chickens yet, even with Easter looming, but Liverpool have developed juggernaut momentum. They kept going on Saturday to secure their sixth last-minute winner this season. Such goals are usually taken as an indication that a team never gives up; which is true, but they also tend to reflect the weariness induced in opponents by Liverpool's pressing and passing. Thus it was, as Hangeland's tackle broke to Benayoun, Paul Konchesky, having chased the indefatigable Dirk Kuyt for more than an hour, was neither close enough, nor quick enough.

Benayoun's telling intervention was testament to the squad strength Benitez has at his disposal, and his good use of it. Hampered by calf and hamstring injuries, but boosted by recent goals against Real Madrid and on international duty for Israel, Benayoun was the perfect substitute.

"Selection was difficult because we had players tired after the internationals, but I think it worked well," Benitez said. He added, speaking from bitter experience, "It is always fantastic if you win; if you draw or lose it is the manager's mistake."

Benitez continued: "The last-minute goal is bad for the heart, but a great way to win. Do I believe in fate? I believe in hard work. In Spain we say 'luck is in love with people who work hard'. We work hard, so hopefully we'll have more luck."

Goal: Benayoun (90) 0-1.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey, Murphy (Dacourt, 76), Etuhu, Davies (Gera, 79); Zamora, Johnson (Nevland, 87). Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Kamara, Kallio, Baird.

Liverpool (4-5-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Insua; Alonso, Lucas, Kuyt (Benayoun, 76), Gerrard (Agger, 90), Dossena (Babel, 65); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Riera, Mascherano, Ngog.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Fulham Paintsil, Gera; Liverpool Babel, Skrtel.

Man of the match: Benayoun.

Attendance: 25,661.

Liverpool must wait for Gerrard

It is probably nothing, but given the importance of Steven Gerrard to the cause, Liverpool and their fans will be waiting nervously to see whether the England midfielder has a reaction to a late muscular problem he suffered against Fulham. In injury time Yossi Benayoun, who had scored the winner seconds earlier, signalled anxiously to the bench for a substitute and pointed to Gerrard. Liverpool's No 8 jogged carefully off.

"He is not injured but he had some problems," admitted Rafael Benitez afterwards. "He was a little bit tired. He felt something a bit tight." Asked whether Gerrard, who has had hamstring problems this season, would be fit for Wednesday's Champions League, quarter-final first leg against Chelsea, Benitez said: "I think he will be OK, we'll see." Javier Mascherano is already suspended.

Glenn Moore

Mersey tide: Late Reds points stealers

*Liverpool previously won 10 points in the 89th minute or later this season:

*23 Aug Steven Gerrard (94th min) v Middlesbrough (h), won 2-1

*5 Oct Dirk Kuyt (92nd min) v Manchester City (a), won 3-2

*1 Feb Fernando Torres (89th & 94th min) v Chelsea (h), won 2-0

*7 Feb Torres (92nd min) v Portsmouth (a), won 3-2

*4 Apr Yossi Benayoun (92nd min) v Fulham (a), won 1-0

...but they have also lost a couple of points late on:

*1 Nov Roman Pavlyuchenko (92nd min) v Tottenham Hotspur (a), lost 2-1

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