Spurs put early heat on Benitez

Tottenham 2 Liverpool 1: Liverpool's management lose their cool after just one match as Spurs make flying start with winning debut goal from French signing Bassong
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The Independent Online

Eyes blazing, arms outstretched, Rafael Benitez appealed to the referee for a penalty in the dying moments of the game yesterday with the kind of fervour that put him in contravention of any number of Football Association and Premier League respect campaigns. One game gone and Liverpool are feeling the heat.

Benitez's assistant manager, Sammy Lee, was sent off by the referee Phil Dowd a minute later on the advice of fourth official Stuart Attwell. Fernando Torres kicked out at Tom Huddlestone and Lucas Leiva weighed in with a shove to the Tottenham midfielder's chest. But when the whistle went for full-time the rest of the Premier League's big four had left Liverpool in the blocks.

Benitez had calmed down by the time he reached his post-match press conference but his feelings had not changed on Dowd or Attwell. The first, he indicated, needed to check his eyesight for the penalty he failed to give against Benoît Assou-Ekotto; the latter, he said, was just too young to be officiating in the Premier League. The FA's Respect campaign has already got its work cut out with Benitez.

To his credit, Benitez did not try to pretend that Liverpool deserved to win just three months after they dispatched Spurs 3-1 at Anfield on the last day of the league season. Something was just not right in the heart of the team, they were outfought by Harry Redknapp's players and the malaise manifested in silly mistakes, like the clash of heads between Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel in the first half that left both of them off the pace.

Certainly, neither of Liverpool's centre-backs got anywhere near Sébastien Bassong, who scored the first goal of his career on his Spurs league debut with a beautifully poised header on 56 minutes. Benitez would surely have replaced Skrtel earlier if he had a better alternative on the bench than the untried 18-year-old Daniel Sanchez Ayala, who was eventually sent on when the disoriented Skrtel could play no more.

It is early days yet for Liverpool bu,t with the exception of the excellent Glen Johnson at right-back, there was little about them that could be argued was an improvement on last season. When Benitez was chasing the game with another attacking player he had no option but to bring on Andrei Voronin, who is no more effective than when he was sent on loan a year ago.

It would be inaccurate to put a defeat like this down to the absence of Xabi Alonso alone but his departure has undoubtedly made Liverpool weaker. There were other elements too: Steven Gerrard, fit again having missed England's game on Wednesday, was strangely quiet apart from his penalty equaliser; Torres hardly had a chance and Ryan Babel failed to seize his opportunity.

Only Pepe Reina could be said to have played anywhere near his best, saving brilliantly from Robbie Keane twice in the first half as his team-mates failed to take charge. In the course of a Premier League season, August form can be misleading but the early signs for another run at their first title in 20 years say that Liverpool have work to do.

They came up against a Tottenham team who, despite their new players, looked unusually well-drilled for a club that has endured some uniquely chaotic starts to the season. Ledley King was the pick of the home team, a magnificent presence in the centre of defence who offered a masterclass in how to keep Torres quiet, alongside a very composed Bassong.

Having watched his team "absolutely slaughtered" by Liverpool at White Hart Lane last season – Spurs still won the game – Redknapp said that this time they had encountered a very different Benitez side. They had set out to press and unsettle them and without Alonso and, as Redknapp said, his "ability to pass the ball round corners", Liverpool found themselves suffocated in midfield

Redknapp made the decision to start without his new £9m signing Peter Crouch and in his absence Keane missed three chances in the first half that he might usually have been expected to score. Nevertheless, Keane was part of a monumental effort from his side to close his former club down all over the pitch. When Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko came on as late substitutes, Spurs showed that their attacking strength runs a lot deeper than Liverpool's.

Spurs' first goal was not only the first for Assou-Ekotto in three years at the club, it was also the first in a career of more than 110 senior games and this one was worth waiting for. Huddlestone's free-kick cannoned into the wall and from there Assou-Ekotto took one touch to control it before dispatching it with his left foot into the top right-hand corner of Reina's goal.

Spurs were in control of the game at half-time and it needed a moment of individual excellence to drag Liverpool back into it. As the League's best paid full-back, Johnson has some pressure on him but he delivered in the 54th minute, surging past Huddlestone and Assou-Ekotto before going past Heurelho Gomes, who brought him down. Gerrard, taunted by the Spurs fans over his court case last month, thundered home the penalty.

That might have been the cue for Liverpool to go on and win it but it was Spurs who regained the lead just before the hour. Luka Modric's free-kick came from the right and Bassong got above Johnson and Carragher to head the ball past Reina.

Of the two penalty appeals for Liverpool the first looked borderline. Assou-Ekotto eased Voronin off the ball as the striker ran in on goal; then minutes later the same Spurs full-back appeared to handle the ball.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Gomes; Corluka, King, Bassong, Assou-Ekotto; Lennon, Huddlestone, Palacios, Modric (O'Hara, 84); Defoe (Pavlyuchenko, 90), Keane (Crouch, 68). Substitutes not used: Hutton, Bentley, Naughton, Cudicini (gk).

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel (Ayala, 75), Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt (Voronin, 79), Gerrard, Babel (Benayoun, 68); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Spearing, Kelly, Dossena.

Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).

Booked: Tottenham Lennon, Assou-Ekotto; Liverpool Mascherano, Carragher.

Man of the match: King.

Attendance: 35,935.

Forthcoming fixtures

Tomorrow Sunderland v Chelsea, Wigan v Wolverhampton

Wednesday, 19 August Birmingham v Portsmouth, Burnley v Manchester United, Hull v Tottenham, Liverpool v Stoke

Saturday, 22 August Arsenal v Portsmouth, Birmingham v Stoke, Hull v Bolton, Manchester City v Wolverhampton, Sunderland v Blackburn, Wigan v Manchester United

Sunday, 23 August Burnley v Everton, Fulham v Chelsea, West Ham v Tottenham

Monday, 24 August Liverpool v Aston Villa

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