Sloppy Reds look anything but champs

IF Alex Ferguson is running scared of Liverpool as Rafa Benitez suggests, then the Manchester United boss must never be allowed to watch a re-run of his great rivals’ latest bore draw with Stoke.

Should he do so then it will not be fear that overcomes the abrasive Scot, but an overwhelming sense of confidence that this year's league championship trophy will not end up on display at Anfield.

What other conclusions can be drawn from a performance so poor and so sloppy that for long passages of the game Liverpool were unrecognisable from the side which recently went on the rampage at Newcastle?

Worst of all, at times their football at the Britannia Stadium was so lacking in wit and ingenuity that had Liverpool's players swopped shirts with their Stoke counterparts before the game hardly anyone would have noticed.

It really was that bad.

Thankfully, such displays are a rarity, not the norm, and while Ferguson would have been forgiven for wearing a knowing smirk he will know in his heart of hearts that Liverpool are better than this – much better.

Stoke succeeded in dragging the Reds down to their level – which is a long way down as anyone who watches Tony Pulis's toilers regularly will testify – and despite hitting the woodwork twice in the latter stages they never looked likely to grab the victory that would have cranked up the pressure on their rivals.

One of Liverpool's biggest problems was their inability to retain possession and in truth this problem began when the second half kicked off at Preston last weekend.

The foot injury Xabi Alonso suffered at Deepdale may not have been a serious one but it has had a serious effect on Liverpool's ability to keep hold of a football since then.

Without the player the Liverpool fans regard as their very own midfield maestro, Rafa Benitez's side do not look quite the same.

Their passing certainly does not tick over in a similar fashion and even vastly inferior opponents will begin to look half decent if you keep giving them the ball back.

The biggest perpetrators against Stoke were Javier Mascherano and Lucas, neither of whom will be able to look back on their display with any great pride.

For Lucas it was a big step back after recently taking two steps forward while the watching Diego Maradona will have been left wondering if he was watching the same Mascherano he once described as a "monster" of a footballer.

The diminutive Argentine has hit a rut this season and he has yet to emerge from it. Apart from a barnstorming performance in the memorable victory over Manchester United, you would be hard pressed to think of another game in which he has hit the dizzy heights of last season.

It would be foolish in the extreme to question Mascherano's quality because at his best he remains a top notch performer but something isn't quite right with him at the moment and he is currently a pale shadow of the player who put a stranglehold on midfields in his first year at Anfield.

He wasn't the only Liverpool player off colour against the Premier League newcomers though with the malaise even spreading as far as goalkeeper Pepe Reina who could have cost his team the single point they ultimately earned with an uncharacteristic blunder which a striker with more nimble finishing skills than Dave Kitson would have taken advantage of.

That wasn't Stoke's only glaring opportunity either with towering centre half Ryan Shawcross rightly having a close range header disallowed for offside and Rory Delap crashing the ball against the crossbar when it looked easier to score – maybe he should have thrown it instead of kicking it.

Dirk Kuyt had Liverpool's best two chances of the first half and should have taken at least one of them, but from the moment the Dutchman smashed a shot against the chest of Thomas Sorensen after 21 minutes their performance levels dipped alarmingly.

It was another hour before Liverpool troubled the Danish keeper again as Steven Gerrard whipped a free kick onto the bar before almost snatching all three points in stoppage time with an effort on the stretch that hit the outside of the post before rolling to safety.

Had either of those shots gone the right side of the woodwork Liverpool would have been celebrating the kind of ground out result of which championship winning sides are made.

Fortune was not in their favour on this occasion, although it would be stretching credulity to breaking point to suggest their sub-standard showing would have deserved such a flourish.

The ongoing sub-plot that is Robbie Keane's Liverpool career took another mysterious twist as the £20m man with more than a century of Premier League goals to his name was again left kicking his heels on the bench as his team failed to come up with even a solitary strike.

The Irishman's manager insists he is not for sale in the transfer window but nor is Keane playing much football and it appears that mutual confidence is in short supply between the pair.

Not that Keane's introduction would have guaranteed goals, of course as even the belated arrival of Fernando Torres was not enough to swing the result in Liverpool's favour on an evening when little went right for Benitez's team.

The last time Liverpool failed to score against Stoke it produced a minor panic amongst Liverpool fans who saw their team's impotence in the face of such limited opposition as possible evidence that they would not be able to go the distance in this season's title race.

In their very next league fixture, the Reds came up with a result that restored confidence and belief at a swipe – a derby victory over Everton.

A repeat of the same next week is now in order if Rafa Benitez's talk of Alex Ferguson's fear factor is to become anything more than a soundbite.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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