Benitez needs his tactics
to do talking for Liverpool FC
Comment by Ben Thornley - Daily Post
If only Rafael Benitez was as
attack-minded in the technical area as he is in the Press
room. After overseeing Liverpool’s worst – and perhaps most
negative – performance of the season at
relegation-threatened Stoke City, Benitez resumed his
offensive against Sir Alex Ferguson, suggesting the
Manchester United boss is “scared” of the Anfield outfit.
This, however, was certainly not a display that will have
struck fear into Liverpool’s title rivals. Or anyone else in
the division, for that matter.
Benitez’s bravado off the pitch was in stark contrast to the
caution he continues to display on it.
While the towering Sami Hyypia and Martin Skrtel were both
astute choices at centre-back, given the aerial bombardment
Tony Pulis’ men subject sides to, the decision to play just
one up front at the Britannia Stadium was less inspired.
The 4-2-3-1 system has been Benitez’s formation of choice
ever since his La Liga-winning days at Valencia, but his
devotion to it is far too dogmatic.
Its merits are clear, allowing the Spanish manager to field
all of his outstanding performers along the spine of the
side, while giving Steven Gerrard the licence to roam.
Like any system, however, its success is dependant on the
suitability of candidates available for the different roles.
And when the spearhead of the formation is Dirk Kuyt rather
than Fernando Torres, who has perfected the position, it’s
time to think again.
Kuyt, for all his qualities, simply can not function in this
role – there are few strikers in Europe who can. He has
neither the touch, strength, pace nor aerial ability to lead
the line and bring others into play.
The result is that Gerrard struggles to exert his influence
on the game, as attack after attack breaks down at the feet
or head of the former Feyenoord favourite.
Against teams like Stoke City, in the kind of contest in
which a moment of inspiration rather than 90 minutes of
perspiration is required, Kuyt is always at his worst. The
Dutchman’s industry may unnerve the very finest defences in
European football but rugged stoppers like Abdoulaye Faye
and Ryan Shawcross would happily face such a limited forward
The manager is right to be patient with Torres’
reintroduction to action following his spate of hamstring
injuries, but the bench also contained two other strikers
with a combined value of over £31m in Ryan Babel and Robbie
Both men have proved to be terrible signings, not because
they lack talent, rather because of how Benitez has chosen
to utilise them. Or not, as the case may be.
In the absence of both Xabi Alonso and Torres, Benitez
should have played to the strength of his personnel,
dropping Gerrard back into his favoured role alongside
Javier Mascherano in a 4-4-2 line-up.
What was it about the Potters’ midfield that troubled
Benitez enough to play two anchormen? Salif Diao, maybe? The
Senegalese flop was only denied a reunion with his former
side by an injury in the warm-up.
In the centre, Liverpool badly missed the inspiration of
Alonso, for whom the wretched Lucas is no replacement.
An encouraging performance against PSV and a delightful
assist against Newcastle United led to some observers
believing the young Brazilian had begun to realise his
This woeful showing, however, was far more familiar. It is
hard to see what Lucas brings to Liverpool. He can’t tackle,
is impotent in front of goal, and his distribution at best
is neat and tidy rather than probing or visionary. He is
neither a playmaker nor a destroyer.
Lucas, however, was not alone in the paucity of his
performance. Alongside him Mascherano continued to fall
short of his own high standards in front of his watching
national manager Diego Maradona, while even Liverpool’s most
consistent performer, Pepe Reina, was uncharacteristically
flustered by Stoke’s direct approach.
Rather than concern himself with combating Ferguson’s mind
games, Benitez should concentrate on outwitting opponents
where it matters – on the field, where Stoke boss Pulis for
the second time this season got the better of the Liverpool
manager. The greatest damage Benitez could have inflicted on
Ferguson’s Premier League hopes would have been to claim a
victory – something that until Gerrard struck the upright
late in the game his side never looked capable of.
True, the same system with largely the same group of players
beat Newcastle 5-1 in the club’s previous league outing. The
difference was, however, unlike the St James’ Park outfit,
Stoke never allowed Liverpool time in possession.
Ultimately, it is not how a team lines up that determines
their attacking intent, rather the mentality of the manager
and the players he selects.
Yet, while Benitez favours a patient approach to football,
he will soon discover that the tolerance of the club’s
supporters will be severely tested should his side produce
many more performances like this.
forget about Ferguson
Comment by Ian Doyle - Daily Post
The next time Rafael Benitez decides to
take on Sir Alex Ferguson, he might want to make sure he can
get the better of the likes of Tony Pulis first.
Benitez commanded the headlines over the weekend for his
uncharacteristic outburst against Manchester United manager
Ferguson, having grown tired of a climate that he believes
has allowed the Scot, and his club, to be above the law for
According to the Spaniard, his mobile phone has been
twittering away since Friday with messages supporting his
fact-filled statement of unease at Old Trafford
But Liverpool supporters aren’t concerned about a popularity
contest. All they care about is that their team does not
fritter away a best position in years to end a title drought
that stretches back to 1990.
And while the Anfield outfit remain league leaders this
morning, it won’t be for much longer given the evidence on
show at the Britannia Stadium at the weekend.
Much has been read into Benitez’s comments. Some have hailed
them as a masterstroke. Some say he has taken Ferguson’s
bait. Some say it’s a canny ploy to transfer the pressure
off Liverpool’s players firmly on to his shoulders. Some
simply say he has lost the plot.
Whatever the implications or otherwise, Friday’s events will
ultimately be seen as a defining moment in the title race.
The initial portents, then, are not good for Liverpool.
No doubt Saturday’s dismal goalless draw at Stoke City will
be lapped up joyously by those who revel in hailing the
supposed psychological genius of Ferguson and his penchant
for mind games.
Well, here’s another fact. Mind games have never won a
league title. They never will. Simply, the championship is
won by the most consistently successful team over the course
of a season.
And that consistent success is what continues to elude
Liverpool. Benitez’s men failed to score a single legitimate
goal in 180 minutes against a Stoke side that, for all the
spirit they showed at the weekend, are probably heading back
to the Championship.
That is not good enough. Liverpool remain the most difficult
team to beat in the Premier League, but another goalless
draw against lesser opposition further underlines how they
still struggle to break down a well-organised, hard-working
team such as that marshalled by Stoke manager Pulis. David
Moyes will have been taking note.
Yet, in the same breath, Liverpool are capable of beating
title rivals United and Chelsea. And what Saturday’s result
does is make it increasingly pertinent that both are again
defeated in the coming weeks to maintain a genuine title
A largely over-looked part of Benitez’s statement was the
perceived slight against the integrity of referee Steve
Officials, like goalkeepers, tend to stick together and it
was noticeable Saturday’s referee Lee Mason was often
generous towards Stoke. Liverpool fans will hope their
manager hasn’t unwittingly erected another significant
hurdle that must be overcome.
Had Stoke been able to field a decent striker, Benitez could
easily have been contemplating an embarrassing defeat.
Capitalising on Pepe Reina’s poor clearance five minutes in
the second half, Dave Kitson advanced into the area, went
around the Liverpool goalkeeper but shot into the
side-netting from a narrowing angle.
And when the visiting defence was later undone for the only
time by a trademark Rory Delap long throw, an unmarked
Kitson headed wastefully over.
Delap, perhaps showing why he is better with the ball in
hand than at feet, hit the crossbar from six yards in the
12th minute with striker Richard Cresswell painfully slow to
capitalise on the rebound.
Benitez, by contrast, is well blessed with attacking talent
but saw fit to leave more than £40m worth on the bench as
Dirk Kuyt reprised the lone forward role he produced to
great effect at Newcastle United a fortnight earlier.
But, during an opening quarter in which Liverpool dominated
possession, Kuyt glanced an inviting Albert Riera cross wide
and then couldn’t find a way past Thomas Sorensen at the
Stoke goalkeeper’s near post.
A match-sharp Fernando Torres might well have converted
both. But, with Benitez understandably coaxing his
compatriot back into action, Torres was almost anonymous
during a 30-minute substitute appearance.
Robbie Keane? He didn’t even get off the bench.
However, so lifeless was Liverpool’s creative performance
that even having all the strikers on the field would have
been no guarantee of a goal.
It served to underline the importance of the absent Xabi
Alonso. The Spaniard, who has become a key component this
season, dictates the rhythm of Liverpool’s game and without
him the visitors struggled to stretch a resolute Stoke
Lucas Leiva, while below par, was a willing worker in
central midfield and at least stuck his foot in, but central
midfield partner Javier Mascherano, in front of watching
Argentina coach Diego Maradona, did little to suggest he is
about to return to his previous heights any time soon.
Even Steven Gerrard, comically booked for taking a free-kick
too quickly, was subdued, although he might contend that it
was asking much for him to again carry the team.
But in the closing moments, Gerrard struck the crossbar with
an ambitious free-kick and, after Torres had flicked on a
diagonal Fabio Aurelio pass, held off the challenge of Ryan
Shawcross and put a stretching effort against Sorensen’s
right-hand post. That, though, would have been an unmerited
reward for Liverpool .
Martin Skrtel, making a first start since suffering his knee
injury in October, endured a nervy 45 minutes before
improving after the interval, although Liverpool’s stellar
performer was once again the evergreen Sami Hyypia.
With the derby double header now upon them, maybe this
result was a kick up the backside, a reminder they are
facing their most testing half of a season in years. If they
are going to win the title, they seem intent on doing it the
continues defiant approach
By Phil McNulty - BBC Sport Online chief football writer
Liverpool's most impressive performer at
Stoke City was combative, confident and up for the fight -
sadly for their hopes of turning the screw on Manchester
United and Chelsea, the man in question was manager Rafael
Benitez was the only story in town on a freezing Saturday
night in the Potteries after he became the self-appointed
slayer of the biggest beast in the Premier League jungle.
And he marched into the media suite and stunned those of us
expecting a straight bat - or perhaps even the appearance of
assistant Sammy Lee rather than the man himself - with
another lacerating attack on Sir Alex Ferguson.
The problem for Liverpool was that while Benitez was
bristling with open defiance and firing statements of
positive intent in the direction of Old Trafford, the men
charged with the task of winning the title were doing
exactly the opposite.
Liverpool were the flip side of their manager's
confrontation approach as Stoke City earned a deserved point
and could have had more.
True Liverpool could have stolen three points when Steven
Gerrard glanced the woodwork twice late on, but even Dick
Turpin would have blushed at such an act of daylight
Liverpool probably could have done without a trip to the
Britannia as their first port of call following Benitez's
declaration of hostilities towards Ferguson.
The Britannia is a raw and exciting footballing experience,
unwelcoming temperatures and hostile home fans, with the
action all played out in a noisy, bearpit atmosphere that is
a real throwback.
And yes, it is absolutely fantasic.
But what of the man of the moment?
Benitez is seen through some eyes as "The People's
Champion", speaking what many regard as the previously
unspoken truth about Ferguson. To others he is displaying
the first signs of falling for the latest move by the master
of the mind games.
The truth, as ever, may lie somewhere in between, but the
Benitez on show at the Britannia refused to retract a single
word and did not need the help of a sheet of A4 paper to
outline the extent of his feelings toward the man he was
very careful to call "Mr Ferguson" on countless occasions.
A swift canvassing of media opinion came up with the theory
that if Benitez wins the title he will be hailed as a
genius. If he does not he can put a black ring around 9
January 2009 as the day it may have started to go wrong.
If the pressure was telling, Benitez disguised it
In the face of such attention he was calm, jovial and even
threw out some very mischievous grins as he delivered a
succession of barbs at the Scot. Regrets? Not a chance - if
anything the message was even more strident.
As previously stated, his words might have carried more
weight if Liverpool had not just given one of their worst
performances of the season.
And the suspicion remains that, for all his verbal jousting
with Liverpool's most dangerous opponent, caution remains
Benitez's default option when it comes to tactics.
Stripped of the creativity of Xabi Alonso, Benitez plumped
for a holding pair of Lucas and Javier Mascherano in
It looked that way, especially with Fernando Torres and
Robbie Keane sitting on the bench and the former not
introduced until the hour mark, when most of the momentum
had evaporated from Liverpool's play. Keane never even got
close to coming on and wore the familiar mask of frustration
that is becoming the hallmark of his Liverpool career so
Only a fool would suggest a wheel is wobbling after a draw
in what is becoming a notoriously tough environment for any
team, but there was a lack of self-belief about Liverpool
and too often those crucial 50-50 balls went the way of
If there were pluses, it was in the way Liverpool stood up
to some real periods of aerial bombardment and took a point
from a game they may have lost in previous seasons. Even on
an off day - and make no mistake this was one - Liverpool
now have more of the steely mentality needed by champions
than they have had before.
Stoke will take second billing to the Benitez sideshow, but
they deserve their fair share of credit for a point
well-earned. If manager Tony Pulis can pluck out a
goalscorer in the transfer window, then do not bet against
them staying up.
Their fans believe they can do it - and the players look
like they believe as well, at least at home.
For Liverpool, this must be regarded as two points lost and
a missed opportunity to give Benitez's message that Ferguson
is "a little bit scared" a touch more resonance.
There was one final, ironic touch of torture for Liverpool,
with their departing fans treated to the strains of their
very own Master of Mirth Ken Dodd singing his legendary hit
Knotty Ash's King of Comedy himself would not have spotted
too much tattifilarity or discumnockeration among the frozen
travelling hordes. Happiness? Not today thanks.
Next stop Old Trafford and Ferguson's considered response to
Benitez's attack and a result at the Britannia that would
have suited him nicely.
Stoke to use
Pool for springboard
By Robin Hackett - Setanta Sports
Stoke boss Tony Pulis has told Setanta
Sports that he believes his side can use the 0-0 draw
against Liverpool as a springboard after escaping the
The Potters put in a resilient performance against Liverpool
at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday, and the draw moves
them up to 17th.
And Pulis feels that, after four straight defeats in all
competitions, his side are in a good position to start
picking up points again.
“It was a good performance,” he told Setanta.
“I’m very, very pleased with the players and the effort they
put in was first-class.
“We created quite a few chances as well.”
He added: “I think good results breed confidence and there’s
such a big emphasis on confidence.
“It is important to pick results up and, like I say, it’s a
special result for us.”
Stoke could fall back into the relegation zone as both
Tottenham and Blackburn have a game in hand, but Stoke are
only two points behind 11th-placed Newcastle and Pulis knows
it can all turn around very quickly.
“We’re very pleased that so many clubs are involved and it
makes it really exciting for everybody else,” he said.
It was the second 0-0 draw between the sides this season
but, while Liverpool were less than effective throughout
much of the game, Pulis feels there is plenty of cause for
optimism at Anfield.
“Liverpool are great,” he said.
“They’ve got some great players and they’re a great football
“I’m not sure if they’re still top of the league, they most
probably are and, if they are, they’re in the best position
they could possibly be in.
“I’m sure Rafa will be pleased to push on from there.”
Benitez: Outburst not to blame
Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez insisted his
outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson had no impact on his
players as they stumbled to a draw at Stoke.
The Premier League leaders missed an opportunity to go six
points clear at the top ahead of Sunday's Old Trafford clash
between fellow title hopefuls Manchester United and Chelsea.
Benitez had launched a surprising tirade against United boss
Ferguson during Friday's pre-match press conference, hitting
out at what he saw as Ferguson's complete ignorance of the
Football Association's 'Respect' campaign towards officials,
and the Scot's complaints about the Premier League fixture
But, after the goalless Britannia Stadium clash, Benitez
stressed the game had not been affected by his
"I don't think so," the Spaniard said when asked if the
comments had been a distraction, repeating the answer when
pressed on whether it might have had any effect.
He added on Setanta Sports 1: "When you are top you want to
win, it doesn't matter which game it is. Today we needed to
win, with or without the press conference.
"After 22 years with Ferguson in charge it could have been
any moment (to bring it up) so why not the other day? I
think it was the right moment to say, 'That's it, now we
will talk about everything'.
"I was thinking about defending my team. I thought 'enough
is enough' and that's it."
Liverpool stretched their lead to four points with the draw,
but nearest rivals Chelsea could trim that to one point at
United, meanwhile, go into Sunday's match eight points
behind their north-west rivals but armed with three games in
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard hit the crossbar and the
post in the closing stages as the visitors pushed without
success for a winning goal.
Stoke had chances themselves though, and Rory Delap hit the
underside of the Liverpool crossbar inside the first quarter
of an hour, with Richard Cresswell unable to convert from
Benitez explained: "We're not happy but it was a difficult
game. We could have won at the end.
"It's better than losing.
"Stoke is a very difficult team to play against so every
throw-in, free-kick and corner is a problem."
Although Liverpool missed out on two additional points,
Benitez was not too worried by the result.
"I think we are at the top of the table so we are still in a
very good position," he said.
While United could gain nine points from their games in
hand, Benitez was quick to stress: "They have to win."
Liverpool fail to crack Potters
By Robin Hackett - Setanta Sports
Liverpool handed back the initiative in
the title race as they failed to break down a resilient
Stoke side at the Britannia Stadium.
Both sides hit the woodwork, but the league leaders
struggled to create chances against a Stoke side that looked
to be back to its best.
It was difficult to know what to expect from Liverpool.
Friday’s press conference from Rafa Benitez suggested either
a man of meltdown or a man finally ready to beat Sir Alex
Ferguson at his own game.
The line-up, too, was curious: Dirk Kuyt – who had not
scored since mid-November – led the line as Fernando Torres
and Robbie Keane were left on the bench.
Stoke, for their part, were no longer predictable
themselves. Throughout the season, Stoke had been solid,
hard to break down and a tight unit. But there had been late
capitulations following red cards in their games against
both Manchester United and West Ham, and the behaviour of
Ricardo Fuller in their previous outing seemed to suggest
the squad unity was no longer intact.
From the kick-off, Liverpool started to establish some
authority over Stoke, making their hosts do all the running,
but they came very, very close to falling behind after 11
Following a slightly disappointing Rory Delap throw-in, the
ball eventually came back into the area and – although three
Stoke players were offside – there was no flag and Delap
struck the woodwork from close range.
The deflection could have been kind, but Liverpool escaped
there, too: the ball struck Richard Cresswell’s midriff and,
with the goalmouth gaping, bounced out for a goal kick.
The chance disrupted Liverpool’s domination, but the
visitors continued to look the more likely for a time, and
Kuyt was working hard, as ever, to fashion chances.
But Stoke continued to battle and, half an hour in, they
again could have taken the lead. First, a poor piece of
handling from Pepe Reina nearly cost his side, and then Ryan
Shawcross put the ball in the net before turning to see the
flag raised for offside.
As the half wore on, Stoke increasingly started to look the
stronger. The final ball was often missing, but they
frequently stubbed out attacks without too much difficulty
and launched plenty of their own in response.
The first half ended goalless, and Liverpool were struggling
to assert themselves on a game they were bossing with ease
in the first ten minute.
The second half began in much the same fashion as the first.
Liverpool looked to stamp their authority on the game, but,
five minutes in, came close to going behind.
Reina was at fault once more, finding Dave Kitson just
outside the area with a wretched clearance, but the former
Reading striker – still searching for his first goal since
his summer move – could only hit the side netting.
After an hour of football in which Liverpool failed to look
anything like title challengers, Benitez’s hand was forced,
and Fernando Torres made his introduction in place of Albert
Whether or not the change affected matters is unclear, but
Liverpool started to get a handle on the game again.
In the 67th minute, they should have been ahead, too, as
Lucas Leiva headed the ball across the face of goal when he
should have nodded his team into the lead. Torres made a
connection at the far post, but the chance was already lost.
However, Stoke had their moments as well, and Kitson had
another good chance to open his account in the 74th minute
as he headed a Delap throw-in just over.
Glenn Whelan came very, very close to curling the ball into
the top corner from a free-kick five minutes later.
Late goals had been Stoke's undoing in recent weeks, though,
and Steven Gerrard, who had been quietly effective but
nowhere near his best, nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat
in the 84th minute when a free-kick by the goal-line was
curled onto the top of the crossbar.
In injury time, Gerrard again came close as he got a touch
on a Torres header, but while his shot beat Thomas Sorensen,
it did not beat the post.
There was to be no breakthrough and, after a lacklustre
showing, Liverpool look to have given ammunition to those
who questioned the wisdom of Rafa’s rant on Friday.
If Manchester United beat Chelsea on Sunday, Liverpool may
no longer be in the driving seat in the title race.