IT was a moment of dark humour on a day when there was once again precious little to smile about for Liverpool FC.
As the media gathered in the aftermath of what was a frantic FA Cup third encounter with Reading, talk gravitated around the Championship side having earned a lucrative replay.
“Hang on,” countered one wag. “Surely it should be the other way around? Let’s face it, Liverpool could do with the money.”
Rarely has a truer word been said in jest. But while the Anfield coffers will no doubt be swelled by the rematch on Wednesday week, it comes at the cost of checking the growing momentum of Benitez’s side.
Having ended 2009 on the positive note of last-gasp victory at Aston Villa, Liverpool began the new year with a reminder there remains plenty of work to be done to salvage what has been a tortuous campaign.
It was typical of the FA Cup. Save the thrilling and ultimately successful run in 2006, the most famous and most cherished of the world’s club knockout competitions has proved somewhat troublesome for Benitez.
From embarrassment at Burnley, humiliation at home to Barnsley and the trifling matter of derby defeat to Everton last season, not to mention narrow squeaks against Luton Town – twice – and plucky Havant and Waterlooville, the magic of the competition has usually been at the expense of the Spaniard.
So it was no surprise to see Liverpool struggle their way to a draw against a Reading side without a manager and hovering precariously above the Championship relegation zone after just five wins in 24 league games.
What was eyebrow-raising, however, was the strength of the team Benitez sent out at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday.
In truth, he had no option. Out of the Champions League and with hopes of a Premier League title long since disappeared, the FA Cup represents, along with the Europa League, a chance to gain some much-needed silverware.
Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard both started in a team that, with the exception of right-back Stephen Darby – making only his second-ever start – boasted a wealth of experience.
Perhaps inevitably, it was Gerrard whose 36th-minute equaliser ensured Liverpool returned to Merseyside with their Cup hopes intact after Reading had exposed their soft-centre at set-pieces with Simon Church’s opener.
Visits to the Madejski have previously played a significant role during Benitez’s tenure. It was here in 2007 that Fernando Torres truly announced his arrival in England with a Carling Cup hat-trick, and it was here that mere months later a 3-1 league defeat pushed the manager to the brink of the sack.
With Liverpool now clear favourites to finish the job at Anfield on Wednesday week, Saturday’s encounter is unlikely to have similar resonance.
But it did nothing to placate the growing band of self-important critics who seem to have decided Benitez’s time is up and are intent on driving the manager back to Spain.
After the encouragement of back-to-back wins and clean sheets against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa, results that have resuscitated Champions League qualification aspirations, this was a step backwards, a frustrating and at times strangely listless performance on an admittedly poor playing surface.
Not that Liverpool were ever hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Reading ran themselves into the ground and constantly sought to pressurise the visiting defence, but their obvious lack of quality meant Pepe Reina had barely a save to make.
That said, Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici and his second-half replacement Ben Hamer were hardly over-worked themselves as Liverpool struggled to find any consistency in their play.
It underlined the need for Benitez to freshen up his squad during this month’s transfer window. But with the manager once again compelled to sell before he can buy – and clubs are not exactly falling over themselves to purchase those being allowed to leave Anfield – any new arrivals are likely to be bargain basement or temporary.
The main positive from Saturday was the performance of Darby. The 21-year-old has been patient waiting for a senior breakthrough, and here he built substantially on an encouraging first start against Fiorentina last month.
Composed in possession and surprisingly strong in the tackle, the reserve skipper grew in confidence the longer the game progressed. And with Glen Johnson sidelined, Philipp Degen surplus to requirements and Martin Kelly injured, Darby will have opportunity to further stake his claim in the coming weeks.
The cosmopolitan nature of modern-day Premier League clubs makes it more difficult than ever for homegrown players to progress through the ranks, and Darby can convince Benitez he need not shell out on right-back cover during the transfer window.
There was no such joy for Emiliano Insua, however.
There must be something about the journey down the A34 that doesn’t agree with the Argentine as, after two fine performances last week, this was a display akin to his troubles at Portsmouth.
Tormented throughout by an inspired Jobi McAnuff, it was a foul on the flying winger that earned Insua a booking and gave Reading the free-kick from which they gained a 24th-minute lead, Grzegorz Rasiak hooking Ryan Bertrand’s deep delivery back into the six-yard box where Church bundled home.
That goal prompted a previously dormant Liverpool into life, Torres sending a header wide before Gerrard levelled nine minutes from the break, his ball into the box missed by the onside Dirk Kuyt but curling enough to deceive Federici and nestle into the bottom corner.
Torres and Aurelio came close to giving Liverpool a half-time advantage as Reading swayed from the blow of the equaliser, but the home side cleared their heads and came forward again in the second period, although only Gylfi Sigurdsson’s ambitious 25-yard shot seriously tested Reina.
With Alberto Aquilani back on the bench, David Ngog partnered Torres up front for the first time. The Frenchman’s stock will have again risen with a hard-working display and growing ability to hold up possession, but questions remain over his stamina after he faded badly during the second half.
Torres himself almost snatched victory during injury time when heading over substitute Yossi Benayoun’s left-wing cross, but that would have been harsh on Reading and an undeserved reward for Liverpool’s curiously subdued performance. Another in the replay, however, would be no laughing matter for Benitez.
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Reading 1 – 1 (HT 1 – 1) Liverpool
Bookings Mills 90
Reading's Percentage Liverpool's Percentage
Corners 5 62% 3 38%
On target 2 50% 2 50%
Fouls 8 33% 16 67%
Offside 1 33% 2 67%
Reading Adam Federici (Ben Hamer, 69), Matt Mills, Ivar Ingimarsson, Ryan Bertrand, Kalifa Cisse (Brian Howard, 74), Brynjar Gunnarsson, Jem Karacan, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Jobi McAnuff, Simon Church, Grzegorz Rasiak (Shane Long, 78)
Liverpool Jose Manuel Reina, Fabio Aurelio (Yossi Benayoun, 80), Emiliano Insua, Jamie Carragher, Stephen Darby, Martin Skrtel, Steven Gerrard, Lucas Leiva, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, David N'Gog (Alberto Aquilani, 68)
Referee Atkinson, M
Venue Madejski Stadium
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