Crouch's plight mirrors Benitez puzzle as magical memory of Istanbul fades

In the heady aftermath of Liverpool's breathtaking European Cup victory, it seemed like an act of sacrifice that had been made redundant the night before by one half of football that rolled back more than a decade of uncertainty around the club. The defeat of Milan, the stunning and extraordinary terms under which it was achieved, felt that night like it had repaired at a stroke Anfield's great sense of identity and freed it from the weight of history. Defeat to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup, allied with their 13th place in the Premiership, suggested that Liverpool will require more than just the miracle of Istanbul.

It is unusual for Benitez to appear as ungracious as he did after Tuesday's defeat, abrupt to the point of being confrontational in a defence of a group of players who had just been defeated by the side placed fifth in the Championship. Liverpool teams have played worse under Benitez than this - the defeats away to Olympiakos and Monaco in the Champions' League group stages last season were almost unwatchable - but this team bears the identity of their Spanish coach much more than those he picked one year earlier after succeeding Gérard Houllier.

And now, more than ever, that identity is symbolised by Peter Crouch - a striker who has come to represent the run of form upon which Liverpool have embarked: four goals in the last five games, six in the Premiership all season, and none so far for their £7m striker. Benitez had left Crouch out of Liverpool's previous two matches but it was with some sensitivity that he allowed him to stay on the pitch for the full 90 minutes on Tuesday in the vain hope of him claiming that first precious goal.

There is a danger that Crouch may soon come to be defined as the striker who cannot score and it is an identity as corrosive for the confidence as any other. He may have claimed 16 goals for Southampton last season, but there is something about Crouch's plight that echoes the demise of the former Manchester United striker Diego Forlan, whose first goal came six months after his arrival on his 27th appearance. And by then it was already too late for Forlan to save a United career that had become hard to take seriously.

Crouch proved in his first start for England against Austria that he has a passing range but he still appears unschooled in the ruthlessness required to be the lead striker. The unrelenting cries of "freak" that followed him around Selhurst Park on Tuesday were unpleasant even by the savage standards of English football grounds - a goalbound header that struck Harry Kewell in the groin told Crouch everything he needed to know about his luck this season.

There have been five attacking strategies employed by Benitez in the last five games, from Crouch as the lone striker against Chelsea to Djibril Cissé fulfilling that role against Anderlecht. Those two have also been paired together - in the win over Blackburn - and Benitez exhausted the permutations last night when he tried Crouch alongside Morientes. But what was not clear from the formation Benitez played at Selhurst Park was whether he was taking the match, and the competition, seriously.

Certainly, his behaviour on the touchline, and his poor mood afterwards, suggested he had, but Benitez seems a very poor reader of the symbolism of certain matches. Against Burnley in the FA Cup third round last January, he followed a 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United by selecting a team fragile enough to lose at Turf Moor. He has the right to prioritise in competitions, but the fallout from defeat to Burnley could not be underestimated: Liverpool lost their next Premiership match to Southampton.

After the defeat to Fulham on Saturday, a different kind of managerial wisdom may have dictated that Benitez should have picked a stronger side than one which included the likes of David Raven, Zak Whitbread and Darren Potter, who, coincidentally, were all in the Liverpool team that lost to Burnley nine months ago. Even despite them reaching the Carling Cup final last season, no one really believes Benitez will take elimination from the competition that hard - however, it is the consequences of defeat that might affect his season more profoundly.

The gloomiest aspect for Liverpool will be what passed through the mind of Steven Gerrard on the journey back north after he returned following three games out with injury to a Liverpool indistinguishable from the very worse he endured last season. The club captain will be forgiven for having reason to doubt once again the wisdom of the four-year deal he signed this summer when he looks at a squad that, in Jamie Carragher and Xabi Alonso, has only two other players who can even claim to be at his level.

The rest of the Liverpool squad divides into the reliable, unspectacular veterans like Sami Hyypia, Dietmar Hamann and John Arne Riise; then there are those Houllier signings for whom time is running out such as Cissé and Kewell; and finally there are the players bought by Benitez and the academy-raised contingent who did themselves few favours on Tuesday night.

It is an unusual group, one that is proving increasingly dysfunctional, and making that memory of Istanbul seem more distant than just five months previous.

The strikers firing blanks

PETER CROUCH

Rafael Benitez's £7m summer signing from Southampton has failed to find the net in 11 games. The 6ft 7in striker was a surprise arrival but has yet to threaten defences, while the balance of the team has been upset with Benitez uncertain of how best to deploy him.

DJIBRIL CISSÉ

Signed by Gérard Houllier for £14m in 2004 after 70 goals in 127 league games for Auxerre. However, Cissé, above, has only two league goals in eight games this season.

FERNANDO MORIENTES

An excellent record for Real Madrid in La Liga, scoring 79 goals in 224 games. Spent a year on loan at Monaco before Benitez bought him for £6.3m last January. For Liverpool, Morientes, above, has scored five in 26 games.

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