The cerebral Rafa Benitez suddenly appears to be an addicted gambler. Already missing Steven Gerrard and the suspended Lucas Leiva here yesterday evening, he left out three of his most experienced players until well into the second half and before they came on to play decisive roles, Portsmouth looked capable of earning Tony Adams some breathing space. After winning only two out of his 15 previous matches, they led 2-1 with five minutes left, only to be undone by goals from Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres, two of the senior internationals Benitez had initially put on the substitutes' bench.
So after his public criticism of Manchester United and the sale of Robbie Keane, Benitez went out on a limb again and won. Liverpool go back to the top of the table ahead of United's game at West Ham today, albeit having played two games more. Heavy exertions against Chelsea and Everton over the past week prompted the manager to name Torres, Kuyt and Xabi Alonso among the substitutes while picking three centre-halves and three full-backs for a game he needed to win. Afterwards he justified the selection by claiming: "The three players were really, really tired. On Wednesday we had played with ten men for extra-time. We spoke to the medical staff and it's not a gamble when you know how tired they are. We could have lost but we deserved to win. "
The difference in a frantic last 20 minutes containing two goals to each team was that Liverpool's big names seized the day while Portsmouth's let themselves down. "On the positive side, there were some good performances, but we made mistakes," Adams admitted. "I've got faith in them still. If we keep playing as we are, I believe 100 per cent we'll do it." The consolation in terms of the League table was that the only four clubs below them all lost earlier in the day. As for his own position, Adams again insisted: "At the moment everyone's saying they want me to do the job, so I'm getting on with it."
There was encouragement for him in the performance of Greek international captain Angelos Basinas and the new attacking partnership of Peter Crouch and David Nugent, which seemed to come to fruition after a first half in which Liverpool had most of the play. David James had watched a free-kick by Daniel Agger clip a post and had then touched Javier Mascherano's drive for a corner, and the first of the substitutions that Liverpool's following were doubtless hoping for should have paid an immediate dividend. Kuyt, replacing the utterly ineffective David Ngog after an hour, was sent away by Yossi Benayoun's fine run but Ryan Babel, three yards out, completely missed the centre.
The home crowd laughed, then roared as Portsmouth unexpectedly took the lead. Crouch was twice involved, laying the ball off then receiving it back and playing in Nugent, the Everton fan, for a smart finish. Crouch then became the villain, having a heavy hand in the equaliser. His back pass was well short of James, who handled under pressure from Kuyt. Alonso, just on as replacement for Andrea Dossena, touched the indirect free-kick to Fabio Aurelio, whose shot from 12 yards flew just inside a post.
Liverpool's big guns appeared capable of going on to win, only to fall behind again when the unfortunately named Nadir Belhadj took a free-kick on the right that was headed in by Hermann Hreidarsson: another set-piece goal conceded by Liverpool's zonal marking. Now Torres came on and fortunes swung again as senior players made critical errors. In the 85th minute, Sylvain Distin allowed Kuyt - looking anything but a tired man - to thrash a shot past James's shoulder from an acute angle.
A draw would still have pepped up Portsmouth and discouraged their visitors. But in added time, Benayoun reached the byline and clipped back a cross that Torres headed firmly past a despairing goalkeeper. It was hardly the occasion James would have wanted to celebrate equalling Gary Speed's Premier League record with his 535th appearance. After 11 League games without a clean sheet he and his club could desperately do with one. A home game in hand against Manchester City on Saturday followed by a visit to Stoke may offer the opportunity but then come Manchester United and Chelsea in the space of four days.
Benitez can hardly rely on them to assist Liverpool by taking points from the latter pair. But after winning in this manner, the gambling man must believe his luck is in.
Referee: Howard Webb
Man of the match: Agger
Match rating: 7/10