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Liverpool's benching of Fernando Torres is sending out all the incorrect signals

IT was as glaringly obvious as the hideous blue coat worn by Birmingham City co-owner David Sullivan in the directors’ box on Saturday.

As the disgruntled Liverpool supporters streamed away from Anfield after another afternoon of frustration, the question on their lips was the same.

Why hadn’t Fernando Torres been playing from the start?

For the second weekend in succession, Liverpool started a Premier League game with the club record signing on the bench. And for the second weekend in succession, they were held to a damaging goalless draw.

Rafael Benitez’s rotation policy will always leave him open to criticism whenever his team fail to produce an expected victory.

But even by the Spaniard’s standards, his treatment of compatriot Torres since the international break earlier this month has been somewhat curious.

At every available opportunity, the Liverpool manager has been at pains to point out the priority for his team this season is in ending a championship drought that stretches back to 1990.

Their flying start to the campaign – top of the table with 11 goals in four matches – seemingly underlined this change in emphasis.

So fans could be forgiven for being flabbergasted when Benitez then restricts his £18million star striker to two late Premier League cameos inside a week with his team firing blanks.

All four of Liverpool’s strikers were given a run-out at the weekend as Benitez desperately sought the key to unlocking a packed Birmingham defence.

Yet in the half-hour he was on the field, Torres demonstrated a greater threat than Dirk Kuyt, Andriy Voronin and the again peculiarly overlooked Peter Crouch combined.

The overhead kick that whistled narrowly beyond Maik Taylor’s crossbar was one of few moments of concern for the Birmingham goalkeeper and hinted at what might have been had Torres been on from the start.

Having Torres on the bench so early into the season sends out all the wrong signals. Portsmouth’s defenders were delighted not to face the Spaniard, and no doubt Birmingham’s felt the same.

Benitez’s explanation that the former Atletico Madrid man was left out because Birmingham’s deep-lying defence wouldn’t allow the space in which the striker could utilise his pace holds some water until the realisation that, with most visiting teams likely to adopt similar tactics, such logic would suggest Torres barely starts a home game.

In many respects, perhaps the one team that will prevent Liverpool from winning the Premier League is themselves.

Certainly, with Manchester United and Chelsea facing off the following day, it was a chance for Anfield side to stretch the gap on at least one of their main title rivals.

They missed it. And with Arsenal ominously striking a rich vein of form, it could be some time before Liverpool return to the top of the table.

Some would argue that Benitez’s team selection smacked of arrogance, fooled by the flimsy resistance previously shown by the other promoted teams, Sunderland and Derby County.

Birmingham, though, are much tougher cookies, built in the image of their manager Steve Bruce, and their stubborn, organised defensive performance ensured a deserved point.

In fairness to Benitez, with the absence of Torres from the starting line-up one of only two changes from the midweek draw in the Champions League, there was at least continuity elsewhere in the team.

Perhaps the manager was giving his players a chance to make amends for the poor performance in Porto, where Liverpool were fortunate to return home with a 1-1 scoreline.

Following his sending-off in Portugal, Jermaine Pennant had most to prove. But against his former club on Saturday, the winger worked hard for little reward and ended a forgettable week hobbling off clutching his hamstring.

On the other flank, Ryan Babel continues to acclimatise to life in English football and could consider himself unlucky to be the man replaced when Torres was introduced on 60 minutes.

Steven Gerrard still appears less than 100%, and while Javier Mascherano was typically industrious, Liverpool lacked the drive from midfield to break down Birmingham’s back line in a performance that truly never got going.

Four points behind Arsenal already, Benitez would be advised to start picking his best team in the Premier League. Otherwise, it won’t just be Sullivan’s coat that is blue in Anfield.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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