For much of yesterday Rafael Benitez must have wished he had resisted the demands to stop his tinkering. He had reined in his rotation policy to a minimum – a mere two changes from last Saturday – Liverpool were heading for their third successive Premiership draw and their chances of mounting a realistic challenge for the title appeared to be further diminishing.
Then, with the visiting supporters getting audibly frustrated, substitute Yossi Benayoun came to his manager's rescue with a goal of invention that was completely out of character from an otherwise witless display. That the scorer was on the pitch because the manager had made an alteration would have brought a quiet smile of satisfaction to the face of Benitez. Perhaps change can be good for you after all.
Under fire for omitting his top scorer Fernando Torres in draws against Portsmouth and Birmingham City, Benitez played his top scorer from the start against Wigan Athletic yesterday and was rewarded with much the same as Anfield eight days before. The Spaniard fluffed a few chances and the team, sticking rigidly to passes through the centre, were less than impressive.
But Benayoun struck, Wigan's Julius Aghahowa missed a sitter from all of a yard, and Benitez got a win to silence the moaners who have criticised his urge to change for change's sake. Afterwards he could even joke about his reputation. "I brought on Benayoun because we needed to do something different, I didn't do it just to rotate," Benitez said. "I needed fresh legs and a different player with different skills. Yossi has a lot of intelligence for these games."
Ah, fresh legs. It is precisely for that reason that Benitez rings the changes in his team, so it was a surprise to see Torres in the starting line-up yesterday with a Champions' League game against Marseille looming. He began alongside Dirk Kuyt but if the Liverpool supporters expected an instant response they were disappointed because, for 30 minutes, they were anonymous. Then Jason Koumas squandered possession with a loose pass across the halfway line, Kuyt prodded ahead and Torres sped forward leaving Emmerson Boyce trailing. His shot was saved by Chris Kirkland's charge from his line, however, and the rebound bounced just wide.
Torres also squandered a chance a minute later when he tried a spectacular scissor-kick where Ian Rush would have trapped the ball and picked his spot, and it appeared the £26m striker might pay for his profligacy when Marcus Bent beat Jose Reina after 50 minutes only to be ruled, erroneously, offside.
By now the visiting supporters were becoming distinctly restless and it was to chants of "attack, attack" that Benitez introduced Benayoun. The effect was to create space in a crowded midfield but Wigan were nearly the first to exploit it. Koumas, the game's most original thinker by some margin, cut in from the left and his pass was aimed for the space between the back four and the goalkeeper. Paul Scharner just got to the ball ahead of Reina but although his attempt cleared the Liverpool goalkeeper it bounced just wide.
That scare acted like a cattle prod on Steven Gerrard, who had been slumbering for the first hour, and it was he who led the Liverpool charge. His shot shaved a post after 65 minutes and his foraging created space for Jermaine Pennant to pass to Benayoun 11 minutes later. The Israeli received the ball 25 yards out, lost his immediate marker with a clever turn and then beat another Wigan player when he aped to pass. His momentum had carried him into the area and he rolled the ball into the corner of the goal.
All over for Wigan? Hardly. Koumas was just over with a free-kick and Josip Skoko had Reina scampering across his line with a volley. But if that had Liverpool stretched, the visitors ought to have been pierced in stoppage time. Koumas crossed and Aghahowa, no more than two yards out and in the centre of the goal, appeared to merely have to apply a touch for an equaliser. Instead he almost defied the science of angles by heading wide.
"They were unlucky for the last 10 minutes," Benitez conceded, "but we were unlucky for the previous 80." There he was changing things again. This time it was history.Reuse content