Liverpool 2 Watford 0: Bellamy sparks congestion charge

Inspired Foster adds to Benitez's fixture concerns by making Liverpool fight to the end
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The Independent Online

Never mind the decorations and the mince pies, the contemporary sign that Christmas is here, is when Rafael Benitez uncorks the whine about the number of fixtures played in England over the festive period. Footballers cannot recover, is his argument, and science, he insists, backs him.

Coming from Spain, the Liverpool manager cannot understand why the Premiership inflicts such punishment on the performers but, love it or loathe it, Christmas and the new year sets the agenda for the rest of the season and yesterday Benitez's team ensured they began the holidays on a positive note. It was not pretty, but, outside the judges of Strictly Come Dancing, who cares about artistry at this time of the year?

Goals from Craig Bellamy and Xabi Alonso earned Liverpool a victory and fuelled hopes on the Kop that Manchester United and Chelsea can be reeled in by a spectacular run in spring. As it is, they are completing 2006 in a rich vein, having kept clean sheets in 11 of their last 13 matches and it is now more than 11 hours since they last conceded a League goal.

"We deserved the win," Benitez said, "but it was a difficult game, very physical. We needed the second goal and we had chances on the counterattack, but maybe we needed a little more calm to kill the game."

Benitez was happy, but would have been cheerier still if his side had won with the foot a little less towards the floor in a game that was their first of four in 10 days. In his programme notes he complained about the congestion, writing: "I said it last season and I will say it again this year too; we shouldn't have to play two games in the space of three days as we are expected to do here in England. Physiologically, it is impossible to be fully fit for the second game - we have the medical facts to prove this."

The unsaid message was that Benitez hoped his side would expend as little energy as possible disposing of the Premiership's bottom team, but if his Christmas wish was an early lead he was disappointed. Indeed, it was Liverpool's goal that was threatened first, Darius Henderson's 12th-minute volley being deflected wide.

This prodded the home team and Alonso forced the first of several stops from Ben Foster seven minutes later. The Watford goalkeeper also dived and stretched to stop Dirk Kuyt's shot on the turn but his best save of the first half came when Bellamy's cross from the right was headed towards his own goal by Dan Shittu. Foster had to be surprised but his reflexes were quick enough to beat the ball away.

While Foster was giving a minor masterclass, his opposite number was going through a repertoire of errors. Jose Reina sliced one kick to put his defenders under pressure and then flapped horribly at Ashley Young's 39th-minute cross from the right and ought to have suffered by conceding a goal. Alhassan Bangura had a rush of blood, however, and volleyed high.

Benitez stressed the need to keep the ball on the ground at half-time and, following their manager's instructions to the letter, they were ahead within two minutes. Kuyt teed the ball for Steven Gerrard to go on a trademark surge and the Watford defence seemed mesmerised as the Liverpool captain galloped towards them.

They moved to block a shot and neglected other defensive duties, so that when Gerrard passed instead, Bellamy had time to turn in the wrong direction, a full 270 degrees, and still was isolated as he chipped the ball beyond Foster.

Reina made amends for his eccentric first half with a tipover from Young after 64 minutes, but it was left to Foster to reinforce his growing reputation, saving from Bellamy after 66 minutes and then denying Jamie Carragher's point-blank volley from a corner. It was clear it would take something exceptional to defeat Foster and Alonso provided it with two minutes remaining, curling in a shot from 25 yards.

It ensured a defeat that accelerates Watford's statistics downwards as Liverpool's are improving; one win in 19 games. "We keep getting up because we have to," Aidy Boothroyd, their manager, said. "We are competing with the Muhammad Alis of this world and we are maybe only featherweights but we keep boxing and you never know."

He drew encouragement from his team's customary refusal to be bowed, but relegation beckons because they cannot match industry with goals and you shudder to think what their goal difference would be but for Foster.

"We are looking for a striker who can guarantee 20 goals a season and is happy to play for fun," Boothroyd said tongue in cheek, looking towards the January transfer window.

Well, it is the season of miracles.

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