Keane in the cold as Liverpool slip behind

Wigan Athletic 1 Liverpool 1: Striker given little time to impress while Benitez blames 'crazy game' for lost points
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The Independent Online

With Robbie Keane back but only to occupy the bench for 84 minutes, Liverpool squandered their opportunity to keep pace with Manchester United after going in front at the JJB Stadium and almost left without a point after Wigan, unluckily beaten at Anfield earlier in the season, finished so strongly that it was Rafa Benitez who was relieved to hear the final whistle.

A clear penalty late in the game allowed Mido, on his Wigan debut, to equalise the first-half goal from Yossi Benayoun on which Liverpool had failed to build. Keane, restored to the Liverpool squad after his exclusion from last Sunday's FA Cup tie against Everton, was sent on only as a last resort, replacing a weary Steven Gerrard after Wigan had drawn level, too late to have better than a slim chance of influencing the outcome.

It raised more questions about Benitez's judgement and tactics yet the Liverpool manager, clearly feeling the pressure as another attempt to secure the side's first title for 19 years threatens to unravel, insisted afterwards that forces beyond his control were conspiring against his team.

In an extraordinary outburst, punctuated by his repeated use of the word "crazy" in a way that will not help the popular perception of his current state of mind among fans of Liverpool's rivals, Benitez refused to be specific about who or what he perceives to be undermining his team, although in a cryptic reference to Sir Alex Ferguson he appeared to be revisiting his recent gripe about what he feels is the Manchester United manager's excessive influence.

"We were the better side in the first half, in control of the game," Benitez said. "But the second half was a crazy game and when it is a crazy game you cannot control things."

Asked to explain what he meant, the Spaniard exonerated Wigan, whose robustly competitive style, while by no means outside the rules, had Liverpool on the retreat in the second half, and refused to talk about referee Phil Dowd's handling of the match, in which only Jason Koumas was booked.

Yet his comments were clearly those of an unhappy man. "The players were OK, they worked hard and in the first half were playing well," he said.

"I was disappointed with a lot of things but not the way Wigan approached the game. I talk to the players about what to do on the field but there are some things you cannot control."

Asked about whether he felt his players should have been better protected by the referee, he said "I cannot talk about this" but when asked about his relationship with Ferguson, whom he feels is allowed to question officials without reproach, he was more revealing.

"I don't have a psychological battle with Sir Alex but he has been here for 22 years and you can see what that means," he said.

"It is not driving me crazy. I'm OK. But there are some things you cannot control and you have to understand that. Maybe it has to be like this for years."

With the visit of Chelsea to Anfield looming, Benitez has endured a difficult week, one that started with a lead let slip against Everton in the Cup, followed by another wave of speculation surrounding Keane, plus the uncomfortable knowledge that Ferguson's United appear to be moving up through the gears. Yet in truth last night's dropping of two crucial points was less to do with outside forces than Liverpool appearing to be content with trying to protect a slender lead, rather than pushing on with conviction.

Benayoun's goal – a fine individual effort set up by Javier Mascherano's pass and finished from a prohibitive angle on the right – was the least reward that their first-half dominance merited. Yet in the second half, with Mascherano and Lucas Leiva both dropping deep to protect their back four, Wigan were invited to attack and, despite missing Wilson Palacios after his sale to Tottenham and with Antonio Valencia injured, did so with increasing confidence.

Mido, playing his first 90-minute match for five months, sent Pepe Reina the wrong way from the penalty spot after Lucas had needlessly but clearly brought down Jason Koumas.

Then Colombian striker Hugo Rodallega, making his debut from the bench after obtaining international clearance at the last minute, almost stole all the points by hitting the bar with a stoppage-time free-kick.

Keane's belated introduction in place of Gerrard followed Benitez's replacement of Torres with Albert Riera some 12 minutes earlier. In need of a goal to finish off an opponent who had seen a 2-1 lead at Anfield overturned only after a contentious red card, not to give the Irishman a proper opportunity to provide it seemed, well... crazy.

Goals: Benayoun (41) 0-1; Mido pen (83) 1-1.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Pollitt; Melchiot, Boyce, Scharner, Figueroa; De Ridder (Koumas, 63), Brown, Cattermole, Taylor (Camara, 79); Zaki (Rodallega, 77), Mido. Substitutes not used: Kingson (gk), Edman, Watson, Kapo.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Mascherano, Leiva; Benayoun (Kuyt, 74), Gerrard (Keane, 83), Babel; Torres (Riera, 71). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri, Dossena, Agger, Alonso.

Booked: Wigan: Figueroa.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Man of the match: Mido.

Attendance: 21,237.

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