Reading 3 Liverpool 1: Benitez red-faced as rotation policy leaves Liverpool in spin
Reading earn shock victory but Reds manager must take share of blame for baffling decisions
Sunday 09 December 2007
A day of history for Reading and mystery for Liverpool. Beginning an eight-day period that could shape their season, Rafa Benitez's men somehow contrived to lose by two goals despite having much of the play and most of the chances.
They struck the bar and post twice, conceded a disputed penalty and were denied two themselves, and had the best player on the pitch in Steven Gerrard; but by the end of a bewildering evening the inspirational captain found himself substituted with his side 3-1 down. Benitez seemed to have given up the ghost, leaving Reading, who had fought for everything and played some neat football too, to celebrate a first victory over any of England's leading four clubs.
Last weekend that quartet regained their normal place at the head of the Premier League. Liverpool's could now be lost again this afternoon. Then they face key matches against Marseille on Tuesday and Manchester United next Sunday. After that, Benitez must meet the club's American owners to discuss his recent outburst about supposed lack of transfer activity.
Given that, as Steve Coppell admitted, Reading were "third priority" for Liverpool this week, there was more interest than ever in the composition of Benitez's line-up. The great rotator limited himself to four changes, resting Sami Hyypia's ageing legs to give a first League start to teenager Jack Hobbs and keeping Peter Crouch alongside Fernando Torres and Andriy Voronin in a bold 4-3-3 formation.
That would have left Liverpool outnumbered in midfield more often had Gerrard not played like two men. Last Saturday he created all four goals against Bolton; here he began on the left but had covered just about every square metre of the pitch before popping up in the centre forward position to equalise.
With a narrow midfield trio, the visitors were vulnerable down the flanks, where Coppell had Stephen Hunt and Bobby Convey attacking with vigour. In the 16th minute, Jamie Carragher found himself having to come across and challenge Brynjar Gunnarsson towards the right-hand corner of the area. The tackle was just outside the box but a penalty was awarded, Hunt calmly sending it past Jose Reina.
Benitez was even more annoyed to see the replays of an incident at the other end, when Ibrahima Sonko clearly tripped Torres 15 yards from goal without punishment. At least Liverpool were level by then. In the 27th minute, Torres, who scored a hat-trick in the 4-0 Carling Cup win here, deftly controlled Reina's long ball and laid it square for Gerrard to squeeze between two defenders and knock in his 10th goal of the season.
After spending the first 15 minutes of the second half pinned back, Reading might have settled for a draw. They enjoyed three escapes from Torres, Hobbs and John Arne Riise before, on the hour, Gerrard made his first misjudgment. He was booked for tripping Hunt and from Nicky Shorey's free-kick Kevin Doyle touched in off his floppy hair.
The identity of the next scorer was more clear-cut. Convey, on the halfway line, sent James Harper through a gaping defence to round the goalkeeper and provide an extraordinary scoreline.
Almost as difficult to believe was Benitez's decision to take off Gerrard, who had just struck the crossbar, with 20 minutes to play. Carragher, who would have been ruled out of the Manchester United game had he been booked for conceding the penalty, was also replaced, at which point Benitez might as well have held up a white flag. His team's day was summed up when Crouch shot against a post, the ball rebounding into Marcus Hahnemann's arms.
"We were losing 3-1 and I wanted to protect the key players for the next game," Benitez said of his substitutions. "I'm not happy with the referee's decisions but we had our chances and didn't take them." If they do not do so this week, another season of anti-climax beckons.
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