After The Match 


Stoke-Liverpool 0-0             10.1.09                                   PL
Team: Reina, Carragher, Aurelio, Hyypia, Skrtel, Mascherano, Lucas, Benayoun, Riera, Gerrard, Kuyt
Subs: Torres (Riera 60), Babbel (Benayoun 76)
Not used: Cavalieri, Dossena, Keane, Plessis, El Zhar
Yellow: Gerrard (64), Lucas (77)       Etherington (67), Wilkinson (83)
Red: None
Referee: Lee Mason (Lancashire)
Attendance: 27,500
Shots on target: 0-2
Shots off target: 6-5
Blocked shots: 0-4
Fouls conceded: 11-12
Corners: 4-5
Offsides: 1-0
Possession: 33.6-66.4
Yellow: 2-2
HEADLINES "I was thinking about defending
my team."
Rafael Benitez
1201: Benitez needs his tactics
          to do talking for Liverpool FC
1201: Benitez should forget about Ferguson
1101: Benitez continues defiant approach
1001: Stoke to use Pool for springboard
1001: Benitez: Outburst not to blame
1001: Liverpool fail to crack Potters 

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 each week.

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 Keane.

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 potential.

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.

Benitez should
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 years.

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 machinations.

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 challenge.

A largely over-looked part of Benitez’s statement was the perceived slight against the integrity of referee Steve Bennett.

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 defence.

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 hard way.

Benitez 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.

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 robbery.

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 brilliantly.

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 midfield.

Safety first?

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 far.

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 Stoke.

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 "Happiness"

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 relegation zone.

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 club.

“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 list.

But, after the goalless Britannia Stadium clash, Benitez stressed the game had not been affected by his widely-publicised words.

"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 Old Trafford.

United, meanwhile, go into Sunday's match eight points behind their north-west rivals but armed with three games in hand.

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 the rebound.

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 minutes.

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 Riera.

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.

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Thor Zakariassen ©