Luck has deserted Rafael Benitez
By Rory Smith
He just doesn’t get the breaks any more, Rafael Benítez. Luck has deserted him. The Liverpool manager used to be able to count on the goal from nowhere, the last-second winner, the remarkable comeback. For the second time in the week, his side were suckered in the closing moments. His luck hasn’t just turned, it’s turned on him.
The fans have not though. The packed away end sang the manager’s name with gusto in the second half and made their appreciation clear for the way this depleted Liverpool side went about their business. With rumours of dressing-room rifts and fans turning on Benítez en masse, this was an important display of solidarity.
The uninspiring collection of players he sent on to the field yesterday — Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres leading a long injury list — ran, tackled and headed hard for their manager and, more through will than skill, had managed to get themselves into a 1-0 lead. Amid the stifling pressure, you could see how much Benítez craved the oxygen of three points.
As the final whistle approached, though, composure started to fail with the onset of the cold sweat of panic. Matthew Etherington’s 89th-minute cross caused chaos, Jamie Carragher eventually poking the ball behind. José Reina had been superb in attacking Stoke’s barrage of crosses, corners and long throws but he could not keep them out in the last minute.
From the corner that Carragher had conceded, Etherington crossed deep. Danny Higginbotham seemed to be fouled but was single-minded in his determination to head the ball back into the danger area, where Salif Diao got the slightest flick as the ball travelled unerringly to Robert Huth at the far post for the tap in.
What had been an awful, claustrophobic game sprang into frantic life. Stoke continued to throw free-kicks and corners into the box but it was Liverpool who came closest to a winner. Flying forward on the counter-attack, Fabio Aurelio crossed superbly into the box and Dirk Kuyt headed the ball down into the turf, only to watch in frustration as it came back up off the post.
Lucas claimed he had been bundled over in the box as the cross came in, the second penalty the Brazilian felt he should have had in the game. In the first half, Higgnbotham appeared to bring him down in the box as he chased Philipp Degen’s flick. To be fair, Lucas threw himself into the tackle but it appeared a clear penalty — to rub it in referee Lee Mason booked him for diving.
“We should have had two penalties,” Benítez said. “They were very clear, both. He made the wrong decision. You can watch the replays 100 times and you’ll have the same opinion as everyone in the stadium.” Not everyone, surely. As Tony Pulis rightly pointed out, managers are instinctively “selfish” and that the free-kick that led to Liverpool’s goal just before the hour should not have been given.
Higginbotham, in typically wholehearted fashion, thumped into Degen as he tried to go past him on the right. The Stoke full-back clearly won the ball first but also caught a lot of Swiss footballer too. Mason, who swerved frustratingly between fussiness and permissiveness, gave Liverpool the free-kick.
Aurelio hit it with dip and pace into the near post and Thomas Sorensen could only parry against Sotirios Kyrgiakos, the ball ricocheting into the net. An ugly goal for an ugly game.
“From what I saw the goal was down to Thomas,” Pulis said. “But he’s big enough to put his hands up.” Of more concern for Pulis was the number of injuries to his players. James Beattie pulled up before the game, while Rory Delap and Abdoulaye Faye, the captain, went off with calf problems in the first half. Etherington finished the game with an ankle injury.
Liverpool are in a similar mess, with Gerrard, Torres, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun all out. Daniel Agger withdrew late on after apparently damaging his back while Albert Aquilani only made the bench, Benítez still concerned by the Italian’s lack of match fitness. Ryan Babel wasn’t in the squad after using his Twitter feed to vent his ennui on Friday night.
The late introduction of Maxi Rodríguez, making his debut as a substitute after last week’s move from Atletico Madrid, brings at least some cause for optimism and Benítez continues to scour the market for bargains to add depth to his squad. He certainly needs it. David N’Gog was desperately poor while Degen, a full-back by trade, was little better on the right wing.
“Football is a difficult game when you have to do well,” Benítez said. “Sometimes things are going against you. Now we have these problems and the only way to change things is to keep going and working hard.
“The most positive thing for me is that they tried from the beginning to the end. They were working so hard. It’s a pity we didn’t win. But I’m really pleased that we improved and can continue working in this way.”
How long he will be allowed to continue is the question in point — he might still have the faith of the players and the patience of the fans, but he needs luck to turn back in his favour.
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