ALL the talk this summer had been of Liverpool taking the final step under Rafa Benitez.
Having come so close last season, the stage appeared set for the current crop to make some history of their own and end the club’s 20-year wait for the top flight crown.
In the space of 90 minutes in North London yesterday optimism and hope were replaced by frustration and anger as the club’s frailties were laid bare for all to see.
The close season represented a massive opportunity for the Reds to strengthen in key areas to ensure they had the depth of talent needed to last the pace.
One look at Liverpool’s bench at White Hart Lane told you everything you need to know about whether that chance has been seized upon.
Of the six outfield subs, only Yossi Benayoun has proved he can produce the goods at this level.
Andriy Voronin and Andrea Dossena wouldn’t even still be at the club if the price had been right this summer, while alongside them were three youngsters in Jay Spearing, Martin Kelly and Daniel Ayala with a grand total of three first-team appearances between them.
In contrast in the opposite dugout sat £40m worth of attacking talent in Peter Crouch, Roman Pavlyuchenko and David Bentley.
The lack of financial backing for the manager from the American owners is a major concern.
Benitez has actually returned a profit on his summer dealing to date and the expected £25million kitty plus whatever he could generate from sales has failed to materialise.
How can the Spaniard be expected to secure progress this season when he’s not given the necessary tools to do the job?
The centre-back situation is quite frankly ludicrous. From the moment Sami Hyypia waved goodbye at Anfield last May it’s been clear Liverpool needed to buy a centre-half.
A back injury to Daniel Agger made that more pressing but with the Reds looking in the equivalent of the bargain bucket for a quality defender no arrival has been forthcoming.
The result was Benitez having to hand a debut to 18-year-old Spaniard Daniel Ayala yesterday when Skrtel finally admitted defeat having nursed a jaw injury following a first half clash of heads with Jamie Carragher.
With Fernando Torres strangely out of sorts, the manager’s lack of attacking options were also laid bare.
The owners may have failed to put their hands in their pockets but the spotlight will also fall on Benitez over his transfer dealings this summer.
Splashing all his cash on two big name signings in Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani was a high-risk strategy.
Spending more than half of it on a replacement for Xabi Alonso who won’t even kick a ball until October was a leap of faith.
The danger is that by the time Aquilani is fit any hopes of winning the title may have already evaporated.
When Liverpool were beaten at White Hart Lane last season, they were left with a burning sense of injustice.
Having battered Spurs but spurned numerous chances they somehow conspired to concede a last-gasp winner and headed home pointless.
Yesterday it was the same scoreline but the Reds had only themselves to blame.
Benitez pointed the finger at Phil Dowd – insisting the Reds should have had a late spot-kick after Voronin was felled in the box.
But the harsh truth is that he should have saved his criticism for those in the dressing room because the Reds got exactly what they deserved.
Having watched Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United get off to a flyer, this was Liverpool’s chance to issue a statement of intent to their rivals.
Instead, they produced a performance seriously lacking in any quality or invention and are left playing catch-up.
The thrilling but ultimately fruitless end to the last campaign which yielded 31 points out of a possible 33, was a distant memory as Spurs bossed the opening 45 minutes.
Last November Liverpool should have been out of sight at the break, this time they were lucky to still be in the game.
Carragher and Skrtel battled on bravely after their sickening collision in which the Slovak came off second best.
But it was only thanks to keeper Pepe Reina and former Reds striker Robbie Keane that it remained goalless for so long.
The Irishman endured a nightmare six-month spell at Anfield where his 28 appearances yielded just seven goals.
Yesterday he showed exactly why Benitez admitted the error of his ways and flogged him back to Tottenham in January as he wasted a hatful of chances.
For his part Reina was faultless throughout and produced two stunning saves before he was finally beaten by an unstoppable strike from Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
An afternoon that had started brightly with Carragher, Skrtel and Steven Gerrard all being declared fit had gone swiftly downhill.
It was a similar story in the second half with possession tossed away with alarming regularity.
Reina’s finger tips kept out Wilson Palacios’s piledriver before the Reds were gifted a lifeline by Heurelho Gomes.
Debutant Glen Johnson’s charge into the box was ended by the keeper’s reckless challenge and Gerrard kept his cool to net from the spot.
The Reds’ joy lasted just three minutes as Spurs new boy Sebastien Bassong stole in front of Carragher to nod home Luka Modric’s free-kick.
Benitez responded by dragging off the ineffective Ryan Babel who failed miserably to stake a claim for a regular starting spot.
The only surprise was that Babel lasted 67 minutes before making way for Benayoun.
The Israeli finally provided some impetus to the visitors’attacking play and it was his through ball which sent Voronin clear late on.
Before he could connect Assou-Ekotto barged him to the ground but inexplicably Dowd waved play on.
When another penalty plea was ignored soon after it was too much for Sammy Lee who took out his frustration on the fourth official and was sent to the stands.
Of course it’s early days and there is no disgrace losing at Spurs. Liverpool were beaten here last season and still ended up securing 86 points.
Harry Redknapp’s side are unbeaten at home since last November and are genuine contenders for a top four finish.
But Benitez must attempt to urgently address the issues this defeat has thrown up otherwise the danger is the next step this club makes will be a backward one.
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