Reading 3 Liverpool 1: Liverpool's fate sealed by Benitez concession

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The Independent Online

A good manager backs his judgement, but he will only be successful if his judgement proves sound. We will find out, in the next 10 days whether Rafael Benitez meets both criteria where this season is concerned.

Benitez went against Liverpool's never-say-die tradition on Saturday, conceding a match with 20 minutes remaining. He did so in the belief that, by withdrawing his best players early from the fray his team will be better positioned to cope with three forthcoming matches. Those matches will not only shape Liverpool's season, they could also determine his own future on Merseyside.

Today Liverpool travel to Marseilles for tomorrow's Champions League tie, which they must win to ensure they remain in the competition. On Sunday they host Manchester United, in the bitterest of modern derby matches. On 19 December they face Chelsea in a Carling Cup quarter-final at Stamford Bridge. A failure to win these matches would effectively leave them with only the FA Cup, and perhaps the losers' prize of the Uefa Cup to play for. In the middle of this the owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, with whom Benitez has been at loggerheads, will be arriving from America to talk to him.

With that in mind Benitez substituted the spine of his side at the Madejski Stadium, Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, then Jamie Carragher, effectively sealing Liverpool's first league defeat of the season.

Afterwards he was unrepentant. "When I take decisions I only think about the team," he said. "It's the best thing to protect a key player. They want to play every game but I need to think about the good of the team. They were tired. Marseilles is like a cup final, not like Reading where you can resign yourself to losing three points, and we don't have much recovery time. Will the proof be in the last 10 minutes there? Hopefully if we need to we can score the winning goal in the last 10 minutes."

The old pros will argue that footballers used to play 60-plus matches a season without needing to be rotated or rested but the game has changed. It is much quicker and players cover far more ground. A recent study in Brazil and contrary to popular perception Brazil has long been at the forefront of sports science revealed that the average footballer, who ran 5km each match in the 70s, and 10km in the 90s, now runs 13km. Premiership figures are likely to exceed that. Having 10, 20 minutes less in the legs may make a difference tomorrow.

It could nevertheless be argued that, after spending heavily for three seasons, Benitez should not be so dependent on three players, two of whom he inherited. This is something Hicks and Gillett may raise in the long-awaited meeting with their manager.

Benitez was unfortunate to see his team lose by such an apparently convincing margin. Three borderline penalty appeals went against Liverpool and they twice hit the woodwork. But these things even out and Carragher, in particular, has been escaping penalty awards all season, notably against Everton. His luck ran out when he brought down Brynjar Gunnarsson on the edge of the area as the midfielder broke on to Bobby Convey's flick. Stephen Hunt converted.

Gerrard levelled, finishing neatly after Pepe Reina had picked out Fernando Torres from 80 yards. But Gerrard then brought down Hunt and Kevin Doyle glanced in Nicky Shorey's free-kick. The clinching goal came from another midfield runner, a feature of Reading's game when they are playing well, James Harper bursting on to another smart flick from Convey before rounding Reina.

Steve Coppell said this was probably Reading's best win since promotion but he was not getting carried away. He also backs his own judgement, and, against expectation, has stayed faithful to the players who brought Reading up. Yet he admitted: "I could be accused of having too much faith in the players who have given us the success. There were funds available in the summer but in the last two years we have challenged the players and they have responded. I had a decision to make. Should I bring a few in? I said, 'No'. They have done everything I have asked so it would have been a right kick in the bollocks. But we do need to bulk up. That is obvious from the results we've had."

Coppell, a boyhood Liverpool fan who beat Hunt to claim Gerrard's jersey, added: "I was driving to the game thinking, 'Blimey! Live TV! Reading against Liverpool! In my first couple of months here you'd look around and there would be 12,000 people. In a very short space of time we have come a tremendous distance. Hopefully, the journey is not over." Benitez will hope he, too, has plenty of road to run.

Goals: Hunt (17, pen) 1-0; Gerrard (28) 1-1; Doyle (60) 2-1; Harper (67) 3-1.

Reading (4-4-2): Hahnemann; Murty (Cisse 90), Sonko (Bikey 81), Ingimarsson, Shorey; Hunt, Harper, Gunnarsson, Convey (Lita 88); Doyle, Kitson. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Long.

Liverpool (4-3-3): Reina; Arbeloa, Carragher (Hyypia 82), Hobbs, Riise; Sissoko, Mascherano, Gerrard (Babel 71); Voronin, Torres (Kewell 61), Crouch. Substitutes not used: Itandje (gk), Kuyt.

Referee: A Marriner (W Midlands).

Booked: Liverpool: Gerrard.

Man of the match: Convey

Attendance: 24,022

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