Liverpool in the grip of title failure

Liverpool 1 Manchester City 1
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The Independent Football

It took Rafael Benitez to remind everyone that this title race is not over but even a man as icily detached from the usual instinctive emotions still looked like he needed some persuading. As for the rest of the home contingent at Anfield, there was a despair that bordered upon resignation: a groan at the final whistle that did not even have the energy to develop into booing.

Nineteen years after Liverpool’s last league championship the gap to Manchester United in first place is seven points and, with a title that seems to be heading inexorably in one direction, it looks like it might yet get even bigger. Yesterday, an undefeated home record in the league that stretched back to December 2007 was in danger until Dirk Kuyt’s equaliser with 12 minutes remaining, but even at Anfield it is becoming impossible not to acknowledge a more basic truth about the state of this team.

It is not that Liverpool did not create chances – there were at least five of them they did not take – it is that they are not gaining momentum, they are losing it. Their victory over Portsmouth on 7 February had the cliffhanger qualities of an end-of-season cup final, not a team gearing up for a title run-in against one of the most dauntingly confident sides in the history of English football. Benitez’s side could not be expected to win games in the last minute indefinitely, and yesterday they proved that point.

When Liverpool beat Newcastle 5-1 on 28 December – like yesterday, Shay Given was also in goal on that occasion – they were 10 points ahead of United, who, however, had three games in hand. In less than two months they have allowed themselves to be reeled in, a collapse of so many constituent parts, including Benitez’s dispute with the club’s American co-owners and his decision to attack Sir Alex Ferguson, which is looking ever more like a terrible misjudgement. Factor in Steven Gerrard’s injury and a general loss of nerve and you have some idea how Liverpool find themselves seven points behind today.

All the teams who have found themselves succumbing to Ferguson’s sides in title races over the last 16 years have crumbled in their own distinctive way. However, there was something familiar about the dread at Anfield yesterday, something similar has, at different times, gripped the likes of Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal and Chelsea over the years. A fateful anxiousness that meant when Craig Bellamy scored Manchester City’s goal on 49 minutes, it was not entirely unexpected.

The consensus from Old Trafford on Saturday was that United played below their usual high standards and still prevailed; having found themselves in the same lacklustre form yesterday Liverpool could not repeat the trick. It means that with 12 games remaining they have a serious shortfall to make up and even if they win on their trip to Old Trafford on 14 March it may not prove decisive. No one around here needs reminding that this Premier League title would be United’s 18th, equalling Liverpool’s record.

There was no Gerrard in the side and Xabi Alonso was suspended, although against a City side who have only one away victory in the league all season it would be reasonable to assume that Liverpool would have enough about them to win. However much the City manager Mark Hughes protested, his team remain essentially flaky, a side who, in the first half, were one goal away from complete collapse at times. It was a goal that Liverpool just could not score.

Benitez could have done with a rescue act from one of his two stars but, with Gerrard out of the side, that was one possibility closed down. As for the other, Fernando Torres did his best. In the first half he made chances for first Albert Riera and then Yossi Benayoun, neither of whom were able to keep them on target.

When you consider that the two attacking substitutions that Benitez could muster as his side were chasing the game were Ryan Babel and Nabil El Zhar it is not hard to see why Liverpool lack an alternative plan when the obvious does not work. They conceded six minutes after half-time when Robinho found Vincent Kompany and he laid the ball off for Bellamy, whose shot clipped Alvaro Arbeloa on its way in.

It had to be Bellamy, formerly of Liverpool and definitely not the kind of character to rein in his celebrations out of deference to old friends. In midfield for City, the Netherlands international Nigel de Jong was excellent and they came alive in the second half when Liverpool’s attacking necessity allowed City to counter on the break.

In the first half, Liverpool had been lucky that Andrea Dossena was not dismissed for a bad studs-up challenge on Micah Richards. Kuyt equalised from Benayoun’s cross from the left on 78 minutes, given his chance because Torres had uncharacteristically miscued his attempt when he arrived at the near post.

There was a stunning save by Given from Benayoun’s well-hit shot from inside the box with five minutes remaining and a suspicion of handball when the ball came back to Richard Dunne. The only thing that united these two sets of supporters was their shared loathing of Manchester United, although despising them is a long way from stopping them. Liverpool know this is the kind of game that you have to win to be champions and increasingly there is only one team that looks like it fits that particular bill.

Goals: Bellamy (51) 0-1; Kuyt (78) 1-1

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Dossena (Aurelio, 75); Lucas, Mascherano (Babel, 83); Benayoun, Kuyt, Riera (El Zhar, 63); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Hyypia, Ngog, Spearing.

Manchester City (4-4-2): Given; Richards, Dunne, Onuoha, Bridge; Ireland, Kompany, De Jong, Zabaleta; Bellamy, Robinho (Caicedo, 88). Substitutes not used: Hart (gk), Garrido, Vassell, Evans, Elano, Weiss.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Manchester City Dunne, Kompany.

Man of the match: De Jong.

Attendance: 44,259.