Liverpool 3 Sunderland 0: Match-winner Crouch is kept guessing by Benitez

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The Independent Football

Perhaps Rafael Benitez, the increasingly beleaguered Liverpool manager, knew what he was doing with his much-analysed policy of squad rotation, based upon the performance of recalled England forward Peter Crouch in this rare Anfield league victory.

Starting for the first time since 8 December, Crouch headed one goal, set up another for his partner Fernando Torres, had a spectacular volley well saved and had another header cleared off the line as he inspired a vastly improved second-half performance from his team.

The other side of the rotation discussion is that, after a depressing sequence of five Premier League games without a win, a recall for Crouch was long overdue. "We knew that it could be a good partnership," Benitez said of the Crouch-Torres pairing. "One is good in the air the other one is quick. It was a good option for us today. I like to use all the players I have in my squad and, for this game, we knew that we could play long balls to the strikers. This game was good for Crouch and another game might be good for Dirk Kuyt."

In short, the 6ft 7in Crouch had better not become blase about his prospects of keeping hold of a starting place despite his match-winning impact in a game which, for almost 60 minutes, appeared destined to be the latest in a long line of frustrations this season for Liverpool.

Indeed, the same can be said of many of his team-mates. An interesting aspect of the Spaniard's team selection on Saturday was the complete absence from his squad of midfielders Xabi Alonso and Harry Kewell, who were both awful in the midweek defeat at West Ham. The time for Benitez treating his under-achieving players with kid gloves is clearly behind him.

"He needs to step it up," Benitez said in explaining the absence of Alonso. "But if Gerrard, Mascherano or Lucas are playing well, it means there is competition for places which is good for the team. Xabi knows he needs to work harder."

The only problem with Benitez's get-tough approach was that Javier Mascherano and, especially, the young Brazilian Lucas were hardly influential, too often put out of their stride by a well-organised and industrious Sunderland. However, a rare slip by forward Daryl Murphy allowed Jamie Carragher to pass him and cross for Crouch to open the scoring with a towering 56th-minute header - and Torres killed off the game 13 minutes later when he raced on to Crouch's flick-on and then used his devastating pace to advance and finish impressively.

Sunderland were denied a clear penalty, for a Carragher handball, by the referee Rob Styles before the official decided that Nyron Nosworthy had brought down Jermaine Pennant and Steven Gerrard converted the 88th-minute spot kick.

Styles was demoted from the Premier League list earlier this season for awarding Chelsea an erroneous and costly penalty against Liverpool at Anfield and, claimed Roy Keane, the Sunderland manager, it was not unreasonable to question whether that episode was on his mind.

"I was just saying that referees are human," Keane said. "But you would have to ask the referee if it was on his mind, and I might ask him when I see him. It would be human nature for him to make up for it, and of course after he gave the decision for Chelsea he was demoted for a while. But I don't know, you'd have to ask him yourself."

Goals: Crouch (56) 1-0, Torres (69) 2-0, Gerrard pen (88) 3-0.

Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Hyypia, Aurelio (Finnan, 45); Pennant, Mascherano, Gerrard, Lucas (Benayoun, 61); Crouch (Kuyt, 83), Torres. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Babel.

Sunderland (4-4-2): Gordon; Bardsley, Nosworthy, Evans, Collins; Chopra (Waghorn, 83), Miller, Whitehead, Richardson (Prica, 6; O'Donovan, 55); Jones, Murphy. Substitutes not used: McShane, Fulop (gk).

Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).

Booked: Liverpool: Finnan; Sunderland: Gordon, Miller.

Man of the match: Crouch.

Attendance: 43,244.