Liverpool 2 Reading 1: Refreshed Benitez has spring in his step

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It is difficult to criticise a manager when he has taken a club to two European Cup finals in three years, but that has never curbed Liverpool supporters driven to distraction by Rafael Benitez's constant changes. Now comes the test.

Liverpool's players face six matches in 16 days, including a round of international friendlies, and the club games are Manchester United, Everton and Arsenal three times. It is time to see whether Benitez's rotation policy really has helped.

"People were asking me, 'Why do you change, why do you rotate?'" Benitez said in the wake of his side's win over Reading, which marked their fifth successive league success. "It was to try to keep players fresh and prevent injuries." The flowering in spring, he maintains, is the result of careful use of resources in autumn.

The counter-argument is that if he had played his best team in the early stages of the season Liverpool would be challenging Manchester United and Arsenal at the top of the Premier League. Exhibit A in their case is that a settled side has led to the most fluent football of the season. Familiarity, not freshness, is the key.

They might as well save their breath, because Benitez was planning his next moves while the supporters were relishing a win that included Javier Mascherano's first goal in English football and Fernando Torres' 27th. "We need to use the squad," he said. "You could see today that some of the key players were a little bit tired. Now, when we have games every three days, we can use the players. All the games will be high tempo and will be physically demanding, so we'll need to think about each match."

What particularly galls Benitez is the international fixtures next week. "I'm really, really happy," he said with heavy sarcasm. "It's something you can't understand but the rules are the rules. It's a problem for all the top sides. Normally the best players are with them and they are competing in the Champions League and for the domestic title. It's always the same, we've talked about it 100 times."

Against Reading, there was evidence of weariness. Steven Gerrard laboured like Kauto Star and even Torres, despite his eighth goal in five Premier League matches, looked less than superhuman. Reading took the lead through Marek Matejovsky and might have snatched a surprising equaliser in the closing seconds when Dave Kitson's shot struck Gerrard's hand. It would have been unjust, but that has not stopped referees before.

Benitez was relieved on two counts. "If they had scored at the end it would have been, good game lots of chances ... but. That was the situation before this season when we drew too many matches. Now we are winning we have a lot of confidence. The mood of the players is good."

Whether the Reading players are similarly upbeat is open to question because Shane Long threw his shirt to the floor when he was substituted, an expression of frustration at refereeing decisions, according to his manager, Steve Coppell, but it hardly shouted team ethic. Long apologised, saying, "I meant no disrespect to anyone, I wasn't fit to wear the shirt. I didn't do it proud and I just hope I can make it up next week." His manager would not say whether Long would be punished but he did say: "It's not the kind of thing I like to see or Reading Football Club likes to see. It will not happen again."

Saturday's defeat jeopardises Reading's future in the Premier League but, like Liverpool, their destiny this season is in their own hands as they face fellow strugglers Birmingham City, Newcastle United and Fulham in the next four weeks. "We contributed to the game," Coppell said, drawing hope as he left Anfield, "we could have got something from it and that must give us confidence."

Goals: Matejovsky (5) 0-1; Mascherano (18) 1-1; Torres (48) 2-1.

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso; Kuyt (Benayoun, 81), Gerrard (Hyypia, 90), Babel (Riise, 83); Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Crouch.

Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Rosenior, Ingimarsson, Bikey, Shorey; Oster (Kebe, 72), Harper, Matejovsky (Cissé, 74), Hunt; Doyle, Long (Kitson, 63). Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Sonko.

Booked: Reading Hunt, Ingimarsson.

Referee: A Marriner (West Midlands).

Man of the match: Mascherano.

Attendance: 43,524.