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Carragher unhappy as Benítez fiddles to anniversary waltz

The hardcore stood firm after the final whistle, the two thousand or more around Block 306 of The Kop protesting long and loud against the American businessmen, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who will mark their first anniversary as Liverpool owners on Wednesday considering an exit strategy when they had sought a profitable party. It was away from the naked eye and before Liverpool's first league win of 2008, however, where perspective was found on the club's troubles and domestic ambition.

"All the players knew how important this game was and we were geeing ourselves up before the game more than in any other Premier League game this year," revealed Peter Crouch, so often over-looked by Rafael Benítez this season but whose opening goal against Sunderland spared his manager untold anxieties. "We have had a few results and performances that have not been up to Liverpool's standards and we knew we had to win. Maybe that's why you saw a touch of nerves in the first half."
As Crouch and Liverpool's performance testified, it will be a hard slog to regain confidence and a foothold in the top four this season and the manager's decision-making recognised as much. "Today the performance wasn't important. It was about the result," he said.

Moving Jamie Carragher to right-back brought unexpected dividends with his brief metamorphosis into a winger leading to Crouch's critical breakthrough, though Benítez risked alienating his vice-captain in the process. "He was not very happy but I think he understood," the manager hoped. An admission that Carragher, the excellent Sami Hyypia and the alarming Martin Skrtel were all selected to nullify Sunderland's threat at set pieces provided further indication of the Spaniard's preoccupation with opponents, often at the expense of faith in his own resources.

The Brazilian central midfielder Lucas was bizarrely deployed on the left wing, the right-back Steve Finnan replaced Fabio Aurelio at left-back after the interval, impressively too, while Xabi Alonso and Harry Kewell were dropped completely after abysmal performances in the preceding defeat at West Ham. The Australian is out of contract in the summer and, barring a miracle, on his way out of Anfield. Surprisingly Alonso could also be made available, a harsh decision given the Spanish playmaker requires games to aid his recovery from a twice-broken metatarsal but is employed by a manager and at a club who cannot offer luxuries while fighting for their own health.

"Javier [Mascherano] was back from suspension and gives us balance in the middle, so [Steven] Gerrard can be more free going forward," explained Benítez. "Lucas was playing really well the other day, so we had three midfielders and we needed to have wingers or strikers on the bench. That's why Alonso was not in the squad."

Yet the Liverpool manager warned: "He needs to step it up. When you are not 100% fit, you want to play every game because you need to play more games to build up your fitness. But if Gerrard, Mascherano or Lucas are playing well, it means there is competition for places which is good for the team. Xabi knows he needs to work harder if he wants to have a place in the team."

Aside from another excellent display from Mascherano, whose permanent transfer to Liverpool for £17m should be sealed and announced this week, Benítez's confidence in his midfield was over-stated. For 57 minutes the home side dominated possession but lacked the ingenuity to disturb an impassioned Sunderland defence. Then Carragher created a moment of major importance for both Crouch and Benítez, reacting with not a flicker of emotion afterwards, and the striker's fine header acted as a defibrillator on a previously lifeless Liverpool.

Roy Keane's side displayed a resilience that augurs well for a relegation scrap but their supply to Kenwyne Jones was non-existent. Fernando Torres plundered his 18th goal of the season from a flick-on by Crouch to hasten Liverpool's recovery and Sunderland, disrupted by Kieran Richardson's latest hamstring injury after seven minutes, were denied the opportunity to examine the hosts' fragile confidence when the referee, Rob Styles, failed to spot Carragher blocking Daryl Murphy's shot with an arm.

"Rob refereed the Chelsea game here a few months ago and was demoted for a penalty he gave against Liverpool," remarked Keane, his irritation increased by the Nyron Nosworthy handball that enabled Gerrard to bring flattery to the scoreline from the penalty spot. "I don't know if that was on his mind but I will ask him when I see him. We were never going to get a penalty in this game. Never."

Man of the match: Javier Mascherano

Though guilty of some wasteful distribution his tenacity, work-rate and commitment continue to provide an example many colleagues would do well to follow.

Best moment A precision steal on the Sunderland striker Kenwyne Jones in the Liverpool area

Match Facts
22' Miller
57' Crouch 1-0
69' Torres 2-0
84' Finnan
88' Gordon
89' Gerrard (penalty) 3-0

Liverpool
Jose Manuel Reina, Fabio Aurelio (Steve Finnan), Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva (Yossi Benayoun), Javier Mascherano, Jermaine Pennant, Peter Crouch (Dirk Kuyt), Fernando Torres

Sunderland
Craig Gordon, Phil Bardsley, Danny Collins, Jonny Evans, Nyron Nosworthy, Liam Miller, Kieran Richardson (Rade Prica (Roy O'Donovan)), Dean Whitehead, Michael Chopra (Martyn Waghorn), Kenwyne Jones, Daryl Murphy

Referee: Styles, R

Venue: Anfield

Attendance: 43,244

Corners:
Liverpool 4
Sunderland 1

Goal Attempts:
Liverpool 15
Sunderland 6

On Target:
Liverpool 12
Sunderland 3

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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