Watford 0 Liverpool 3: Benitez's gamble pays rich dividends

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez clearly believes procrastination is the enemy of progress.

His team selection at Watford proved it. Few managers would be brave enough to use an untested and radically different tactical approach immediately after two cup defeats, but the Spaniard had no hesitation about doing so.

His 3-4-3, long-ball system, in which Craig Bellamy, Peter Crouch and Dirk Kuyt started together for the first time, yielded a win for Liverpool that encouraged Benitez to talk again about a title challenge as Chelsea prepare to visit Anfield on Saturday. How different the mood was during the three days preceding this trip to Vicarage Road.

"If you score first, it will be difficult for them," said Benitez, looking ahead to the Chelsea game and the prospect of cutting the gap with them to five points. "It's a long race. I have confidence."

It is unlikely that Benitez will use a similar formation against the champions. He admitted that his decision to play three up front, and sacrifice width, was influenced by Watford's personnel. "We knew their strengths and weaknesses," Benitez said. "It's not easy for [their] four defenders to control three strikers."

Crouch would like to play in Benitez's novel system against Chelsea, though. "As long as it works like that and I get a couple and Bellers [Bellamy] gets one then we will, hopefully, carry it on," said the striker. "It is certainly something the manager can think about now."

Crouch knows that it is games against teams such as Chelsea, rather than the likes of Watford, which will decide whether Liverpool can mount a realistic title challenge. Speaking about Jose Mourinho's side and Manchester United, he said: "Their consistency seems to be so good and that's what we have to get to. Our form against sides below us has been good. But against the big teams it has been frustrating. I can't put my finger on why, but it's something we need to address."

Slipping up against Watford would have had dire consequences, in terms of pressure on players and manager, so Crouch does not underestimate the importance of this result. "A lot has been said," he added. "The boys were up for it."

Bellamy was another player who was clearly "up for it". His tireless running and ability to deliver the right pass or cross shone through. He opened the scoring after tapping in Steve Finnan's cross with Watford nowhere near picking him up.

The home side had shown menace in the 10-minute period leading up to that goal, but, as has been the case so often this season, they conceded against the run of play. That infuriated their manager Aidy Boothroyd, who revealed that today and tomorrow would be uncomfortable days for his players. "There will be some serious questions asked," he said.

Boothroyd will also be mulling over whether he should part with Ashley Young before the transfer deadline. Watford need some bite up front because, once they had fallen a goal behind, their attack appeared utterly toothless.

Crouch put this game out of their reach with two goals either side of half-time. The first was a simple header after a Bellamy shot rebounded into his path. Bellamy was again the supplier, within three minutes of the second half starting, as his cross was tucked away by Crouch following a swift counter-attack and more naïve Watford defending.

It was not the first time that a Benitez side have delivered an instant response to heavy criticism. He gave his own example: "When I was in Valencia, they said, 'If you lose to Espanyol, you are sacked.' After that, we won the league."

Goals: Bellamy (34) 0-1; Crouch (40) 0-2; Crouch (48) 0-3.

Watford (4-4-2): Foster; Mariappa, DeMerit, Mackay, Stewart; Smith, Mahon, Bangura (Henderson, h-t), McNamee (Hoskins, h-t); Bouazza, Young. Substitutes not used: Lee (gk), Francis, Doyley.

Liverpool (3-4-3): Reina; Carragher, Hyypia, Agger; Finnan, Gerrard, Alonso, Aurelio; Bellamy (Fowler, 84), Crouch (Pennant, 70), Kuyt (Riise, 76). Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Guthrie.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyneside).

Man of the match: Crouch.

Attendance: 19,746.