Liverpool 0 Charlton Athletic 0: Benitez fights corner after more blanks from Liverpool firing squad

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The Independent Football

The interrogation of Rafael Benitez was exasperating. He kept insisting he was confident that Liverpool, whose strikers all seem to be clambering for the one blank bullet that is normally included with the live ones handed to a firing squad, would score at least the two goals necessary against Benfica this week for any further defence of their Champions' League title.

He declared that all his front men, Peter Crouch, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cissé were playing well, the team were making chances, and it couldn't always be that opposing goalkeepers like Charlton's splendid Thomas Myhre would vote themselves man of the match.

Something in his manner said that surely the plausibility of his argument was beyond doubt. Hadn't we been through all this before? All the way to Liverpool's fifth European Cup win last spring.

But still the question came in like a lance. How can you be so confident? Not one Liverpool striker had found the mark on club business since the turn of the year and in that time the team of iron defence had not scored more than once in any game.

Benitez was unblinking as the statistics beat against him. Maybe it was reports that his home-town team Real Madrid, and Internazionale, were hungry for his services, which is no mean bartering position when he demands for this summer a budget to allow him to compete with Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. Or maybe it was something wild and intangible. Maybe he just believed that when it comes to the Champions' League he will do this year as he did last: he will find a way.

Perhaps it was just a question of good habits, of nerve, of doing what you know is right and believing implacably that sooner or later you get what you deserve. In the end he retreated with a small smile on his face. "I'm just confident, that's it," he says.

Talk about backing yourself into a corner but, as he did it, so an old picture came into focus. It was of the same man explaining away a run-around administered by the ultra-erratic Newcastle United on a gale-blown afternoon on Tyneside last season. "I am confident the goals will come. We are playing well enough," Benitez said then. "The important thing in football is to keep doing the right things, play in the right way, and I'm very pleased with the character of my players. Yes, of course they can overcome their next obstacle." That was Juventus - and he said pretty much the same before beating Chelsea and then Milan in the final.

It remains one of the most intriguing stories English football has ever known. Liverpool remain a work in progress, no doubt, but then so much has been achieved even with the blueprint flapping in the wind. Though you have to go to ninth place in the League, and Wigan Athletic, to find a team who have scored less goals, the Liverpool defence is as tight as Chelsea's (just 17 goals conceded in 28 games). A foundation, a launching pad has been laid: but when will the rockets fire? Wednesday is the latest deadline. Can Liverpool recover the 1-0 deficit against Benfica? The law of averages says yes.

The Charlton manager, Alan Curbishley, was delighted by his team's resistance, and discipline, but he also acknowledged a huge debt to the resilience and the acrobatics of Myhre, whose best save came when he turned away a deflection off his team-mate Hermann Hreidarsson after Steven Gerrard, somewhere around his most dynamic, powered in still another big cross from the right.

Myhre saved well from Cissé, twice, Harry Kewell once, and was lucky when Crouch headed straight at him after running clear on to a fine cross by Cissé. It was also true that Fowler was unlucky when firing home in stoppage time, a linesman ruling that Cissé was fractionally offside and interfering with the play. That's a lot of evidence to support Benitez's belief that indeed the logjam will be broken, but some of it is weakened by the fact that if Myhre did well, he simply wasn't provided with any truly ultimate test.

There was also a worrying phrase of body language from the normally hard-working and intelligent Morientes when he failed to respond to the possibilities of still another raking cross, this time from Gerrard. When it flew past, he gave almost a subliminal shrug of his shoulders. Strikers trade on self- belief and that, Morientes seemed to be saying, is cruelly scarce among the Anfield firing squad.

Gerrard, who at times found a conviction desperately absent in his 45 minutes here for England earlier in the week, later unswervingly followed the Benitez line. He said: "It would have been a 1-0 game if Robbie's goal had stood, and we have seen it and it was onside. But sometimes decisions don't go your way. We just have to go on creating chances and hopefully we will get a few breaks and the goals will come. We've got goalscorers in the squad. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before the goals start going in. When teams aren't organised and come to attack us, that's when we can pick off even more chances."

Whether Ronald Koeman's Benfica come into that category is key to this week's action. Another is the return of Xabi Alonso. His arrival after 72 minutes sharpened the bite of Liverpool's approach work, while lifting the huge burden Gerrard had carried and, if Fowler's goal had been confirmed, no doubt Benitez would have found the post-game going a lot easier. As it is, of course, he still believes. His questioners look to the heavens, but then so does he - no doubt for different reasons

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Kromkamp, Carragher, Hyypia (Riise, h-t), Traoré; Cissé, Gerrard, Hamann (Alonso, 72), Kewell; Fowler, Crouch (Morientes, 80). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Finnan.

Charlton (4-4-2) Myhre; Young, Perry, Hreidarsson, Spector; Kishishev (Euell, 77), Hughes, Holland, Ambrose (Powell, 86), M Bent (Bothroyd, 53), D Bent. Substitutes not used: Andersen (gk), Thomas.

Referee: M Atkinson (West Yorkshire) Booked: Liverpool Cissé; Charlton Young.

Man of the match: Gerrard.

Attendance: 43,892.

Benfica warm up with a win

Benfica, Liverpool's Champions' League opponents on Wednesday, moved into third place in the Portuguese Premier League on Saturday after a goal three minutes into injury time from their Italian substitute Fabrizio Micolli gave them a 2-1 win over Estrela Amadora. A free-kick by Paulo Machado had put Estrela Amadora in front after 31 minutes before Benfica levelled through the former Newcastle player Laurent Robert early in the second half. The Italian winger Miccoli, returning after a seven-week injury lay-off, hit the winner with a deflected shot from outside the box.