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Liverpool Echo report

THE understudies didn’t quite fluff their lines but this was certainly no award winning performance.

Rafa Benitez had thrown down the gauntlet to his fringe players to grab the chance to force their way into his plans on a more regular basis.

The Spaniard had warned that an early exit from the Carling Cup could leave some kicking their heels for the rest of the campaign.

This was the stage for those on the outside looking in to show supporters what they’ve been missing and repay the faith shown in them by the manager but their response was tepid to say the least.

David Ngog’s clinical strike – his fifth in six starts for the Reds – ensured opportunity will knock for Benitez’s second string once again but unless they learn lessons Liverpool’s stay in the Carling Cup is likely to be brief.

A potential upset was successfully avoided last night but this was scrappy and unconvincing.

Inflicting a first home defeat on Leeds since January will do little to silence the critics who claim the Reds don’t possess the strength in depth needed to land the Premier League crown.

The feeling persists that Benitez possesses a first choice XI to match anyone in Europe but scratch beneath the surface and there are weaknesses.

Of course the manager will be grateful for small mercies in this competition.

Liverpool may have won the League Cup a record seven times but since suffering the agony of the 2005 final defeat to Chelsea, it has brought nothing but disappointment.

An early exit at the hands of Crystal Palace, an embarrassing 6-3 humbling at home to Arsenal, a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea and a woeful 4-2 reverse at Spurs have led to countless inquests into the lack of talent at his disposal.

But courtesy of Leeds’ profligacy in front of goal and Ngog’s cool finish dreams of a first trip to the new Wembley are still alive.

This tie conjured up images of Ian St John’s winner in the 1965 FA Cup final, legendary duels between Bill Shankly and Don Revie and Kevin Keegan’s infamous brawl with Billy Bremner in the 1974 Charity Shield.

But where once a great rivalry existed, only pity has been forthcoming in recent years.

This was the first meeting between the clubs since February 2004 when goals from Harry Kewell and Milan Baros earned the Reds a 2-2 draw at Elland Road.

Three months later Leeds were relegated from the top flight following a firesale of their prized assets and the debt-ridden club’s fall from grace continued with relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in 2007.

However, under the guidance of former Leicester City defender Simon Grayson, they appear to be on the way back up.

A club record 15 successive home league wins and an unbeaten start to the campaign had rekindled optimism and given the League One leaders the belief they could shock the Reds.

Roared on by a 38,000 sell-out crowd, a team used to locking horns with the likes of Exeter and Brighton, flew out of the traps and put Liverpool under the cosh.

The Reds enjoyed a major let-off when on-loan Coventry City midfielder Michael Doyle wastefully nodded wide from Robert Snodgrass’ cross.

Seconds later strike duo Jermaine Beckford and Luciano Becchio combined to turn home Lubo Michalik’s header but an offside flag brought a swift halt to the manic celebrations.

Benitez had made nine changes from the 3-2 win at West Ham with only Jamie Carragher and Javier Mascherano retained but the starting line up still contained seven full internationals.

Full-backs Philipp Degen and Andrea Dossena both frequently tossed possession away with the latter given a particularly torrid time by Snodgrass.

Jay Spearing grew in stature on his full debut in midfield and behind him Mascherano produced an energetic display but the Reds struggled to gain any kind of control.

For most of the first half Ngog was isolated up front with Ryan Babel and Albert Riera failing to provide sufficient support.

The Reds have only lost to a team outside the top two divisions once in the League Cup – at Peterborough in 1991 – but only desperate defending kept them level before the break.

At the other end Babel’s pace provided the only real threat but after racing half the length of the pitch he fired tamely at Shane Higgs.

It was a similar story in the second half with Leeds pressing but Beckford unable to deliver the killer blow.

After bursting clear his weak effort allowed Diego Cavalieri to make a save and then just after the hour mark he hooked a shot just over the bar.

Leeds were still rueing that miss when Liverpool struck in the 66th minute. Ngog expertly controlled Mascherano’s shot and turned neatly before firing past Higgs.

There were still some nervy moments with Carragher intervening to thwart Snodgrass and Cavalieri saving from Johnson.

It was a measure of Benitez’s concern that Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel were all brought on in the closing stages.

LEEDS UNITED: Higgs, Crowe, Michalik, Kisnorbo, Doyle (Showunmi 88), Johnson, Hughes (Kilkenny 78), Howson, Snodgrass, Becchio (Grella 81), Beckford. Subs not used: Ankergren, Naylor, Prutton, Robinson.

LIVERPOOL: Cavalieri, Degen (Johnson 72), Kyrgiakos, Aurelio, Riera, Spearing, Mascherano, Dossena, Babel (Skrtel 90), Ngog (Gerrard 78). Subs not used: Torres, Voronin, Reina, Plessis.

REFEREE: Alan Wiley.

ATTENDANCE: 38,168.

Copyright - Liverpool Echo

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