One of the attractions Juventus holds for Rafael Benitez is said to be the size of the challenge at a resurgent club. It serves his agent Manuel Garcia Quilon well, ahead of a summer when the Spaniard's Liverpool future will come under review, to nurture the idea that the Old Lady is seeking him to replace the incumbent Ciro Ferrara, but current evidence suggests that Benitez will need a long lie down if he and his current employers part company at the season's end.
This would have been Liverpool's chance to step up into the top four, had Tottenham lost; the kind of match they drew so many of last season, presaging the more attacking dimension which has proved their undoing so often this time. But last month's defeat at Portsmouth aside, it was instead the most dismal and dispiriting displays of a most grim campaign. "Champions League, you're having laugh" was the cry which went around the ground half through the second half and no-one could really argue with that as Liverpool fell back three points behind Tottenham, still grasping for one of those top-four berths and looking a long way off.
Benitez clutched at what positives he could: five league games undefeated and four clean sheets among them. But he must be wondering whether Steven Gerrard, back after his 13 days out nursing a hamstring, is ever going to reach the heights this season which took Liverpool so close to the title in the last? And if anyone will step out from among the rest of his players to spring a pleasant surprise on him?
Alberto Aquilani lurked in the shadows of the bench, the £20m acquisition whose moment ought to have arrived in Gerrard's absence but who was quickly relegated back to the margins. "The decision was to play Gerrard or him. Gerrard has power to go forward," the manager said. Gerrard's display did not bear out that statement, though Aquilani, still only fit enough for one game a week, is not made for fixtures like this. This was not how Benitez planned it when he signed him last July.
Maxi Rodriguez, his latest Argentine acquisition was also considerably less powerful than his nickname in his native Rosario – "La Fiera" (fireball) – suggests. He wears the name "Maxi" on his back at Liverpool and you could probably preface that with "Austin" by way of a defining Liverpool's first-half display in particular. Benitez hinted that Rodriguez needs time. "He could see the difference between Spanish league and this one," the manager said. But Rodriguez chased the shadows Aquilani occupied. The fear for Liverpool must be that he will become yet another example of what Alan Hansen – part of the last Liverpool side to win at Molineux in 1979 – has defined as a "maybe player."
Wolves, the league's lowest scorers, were the side who offered most and the only absorbing area of the field was the outside left channel in the first half where Matt Jarvis – hardly a player considered a world-beater in these parts – gave Jamie Carragher, deputising once again at full-back with Daniel Agger injured, a torrid evening. Jarvis' CV is modest – from Millwall's books to Wolves by way of Gillingham – but he created three clear chances. The most profitable looking one arrived just after the half-hour when Carragher – baffled again by whether Jarvis would show him inside or out – guessed wrong and the young Teessider crossed low and right footed for Kevin Doyle. The faintest imposition by Emiliano Insua ruined the striker's attempt to shoot. Liverpool's only shot on target was the 20-yard Albert Riera effort which Marcus Hahnemann tipped over, the other side of half time.
Asked if this his best point of the season, Wolves manager Mick McCarthy replied tartly, "the next one is," in that way he seems to have of converting every straightforward question into something complicated. But every point will indeed be sacred for a side now out of the drop zone on goal difference alone.
Benitez, meanwhile, "feels he has the strength to continue with the team," Quilon said yesterday in the course of rebutting the Juventus stories he has stirred. Those last reserves of strength will be drained by nights like this.
Wolverhampton Wanderers (4-5-1): Hahnemann; Zubar, Craddock, Berra, Ward; Foley, Henry, Mancienne, Milijas (Jones, 73), Jarvis (Guedioura, 88); Doyle. Substitutes not used: Hennessey (gk), Stearman, Vokes, Iwelumo, Mujangi Bia.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Rodriguez, Gerrard, Riera (Ngog, 66); Kuyt. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Aquilani, Babel, Degen, Darby, Pacheco.
Referee: P Walton (Northamptonshire)
Booked: Liverpool Skrtel
Man of the match: Jarvis
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