Rafa deflated by beach-ball goal

Benitez involved in ugly spat with Bruce after surreal strike from Bent delivers hammer blow to Liverpool's title hopes
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It was not the best of days for Rafael Benitez at the Stadium of Light. The Liverpool manager watched his side concede a surreal goal to a Darren Bent shot that took a deflection past Pepe Reina via a red beach ball thrown on to the pitch by a visiting fan and which bore the Liverpool club crest. He also became involved in a heated exchange with Sunderland manager Steve Bruce, who took exception to the Spaniard pointing to his watch while Kenwyne Jones received treatment for an ankle injury that ultimately left the striker in hospital. Most damagingly of all for Benitez, though, was the 1-0 defeat Bent's goal inflicted.

It was Liverpool's fourth of the Premier League season, though their manager declined to consider it a grievous blow to their title hopes. "It's bad," Benitez said, "but is it crucial? It depends on the next games. If you win three games you can be at the top. But we will have to improve." The Reds were without the injured Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres and can ill afford to be without them for the Champions' League fixture at home to Lyon on Tuesday and the League visit of Manchester United next Sunday.

To his credit, Benitez declined to blame the bizarre beach ball intervention. "It's a technical question," he said, when asked if the goal should have stood. "It's difficult to say. It was a special situation. In this case I think it has to be a goal. It's one of those things." As for the incident that left Bruce having to be restrained by the fourth official, Benitez said: "I was asking the fourth official for time because three or four times they were on the ground. I was surprised because I was talking to the official."

The pair shook hands at the final whistle, Bruce saying: "You do things on the spur of the moment and look back and think you've made a prat of yourself. It's over. It's done."

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