After The Match 


Manchester U-Liverpool 2-1 (1-1)        21.3.10                    PL
Goals: Torres (5)              Rooney (12), Park (60)
Team: Reina, Insua, Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Mascherano, Lucas, Gerrard, Rodriguez, Kuyt, Torres
Subs: Aquilani (Kuyt 73), Babel (Rodriguez 76),
Benayoun (Lucas 83)
Not used: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Ngog, Kelly
Yellow: Carragher, Mascherano, Torres
Vidic, Valencia
Red: None
Referee: Howard Webb
Attendance: 75,212
Shots on target: 5-2
Shots off target: 5-3
Blocked shots: 2-0
Fouls conceded: 11-17
Corners: 1-2
Offsides: 1-3
Possession: 55.4-44.6
Yellow: 2-3

HEADLINES " could have been a draw, with a little
bit of luck."
Rafael Benitez
2303: Benitez demands more from key players
2303: Liverpool FC can salvage
          fourth spot with attacking verve

2303: How long will Torres put up with
          being out in cold with Liverpool FC?

2203: Whelan believes players have given up on boss
2203: Rafa: Masch deal almost wrapped
2203: Benitez: Reds relying on others
2203: Red-dy for the fight
2203: Liverpool FC need to go for jugular
2203: Liverpool FC can still finish
          fourth, says Jamie Carragher

2203: Rafa: Fergie influenced Webb
2203: Cautious Benitez pays the price
2103: Rafa reveals fourth fears
2103: Reds' glory days a distant memory
2103: Park makes life miserable for Liverpool

Benitez demands more from key players

By Carl Markham - Press Association Sport

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez expects his "big names" to lead by example and drive the club on to Champions League qualification.

A difficult season has seen captain Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres' form affected by injuries while even the ever-consistent Jamie Carragher had an uncharacteristically poor start to the campaign.

Despite Torres scoring his fifth goal in three matches early on against Manchester United on Sunday the team failed to recover from Wayne Rooney's penalty soon after and eventually lost 2-1 at Old Trafford.

Torres' disenchantment grew as the match wore on and his increasing frustration led to him being booked for a foul on Park Ji-sung and subsequent dissent to referee Howard Webb.

Gerrard's performance was more of a concern for Benitez as he struggled to raise his game enough to be able to drag Liverpool back into it as he has done so often in the past.

The Reds have now fallen behind both Tottenham and Manchester City in the race for fourth place while should Aston Villa win their two matches in hand they too will overtake the Anfield club.

Liverpool have seven matches - with only one against a top-four club in Chelsea at home - to save their season and Benitez believes his experienced players have to lead the way.

"Sometimes when you talk about big names, top-class players, you are expecting something from them when the team is not doing well," said Benitez.

"You expect them to say: 'It's okay, follow me'.

"We have had this conversation with Fernando and the rest of the team.

"It was something we were expecting from Torres and he was really good the other day (scoring two apiece against Portsmouth and Lille)."

Benitez was not overly concerned by Torres' display of petulance against United.

But he has told the Spain striker to concentrate on causing problems for opponents and not allow himself to be distracted by their spoiling tactics.

"Fernando knows he has to focus a little bit more," said the Reds boss.

"We were talking about this at half-time (against United) so that is something that will be better for him and better for the team.

"He can score more goals by concentrating on football.

"All strikers, especially top-class strikers, they are marked a little bit more closely than others and that is normal.

"It is not easy every game. People don't understand when you are a player on the pitch and you are fighting and sometimes you cannot understand these things."

Torres' form in the last week shows he is approaching the level which saw him score 33 goals in his debut 2007/8 season.

Even in the last injury-hit campaign he scored 17 as Liverpool ran United a close second in the Barclays Premier League.

Benitez can only ponder what might have been had the Spaniard, who missed five weeks after a knee operation in January having been troubled by a hernia before that, been fully fit all season.

Instead he has to worry about whether they will qualify for the Champions League.

"It was a pity because it was a very good season (last year) and if we were doing more or less the same we would be up there," said Benitez.

"We have seen some games where we couldn't score and we conceded and after we didn't have the same reaction as last year."

Left-back is another area of concern for Benitez with Emiliano Insua currently looking like he is feeling the effects of what has been a testing season.

The manager believes Fabio Aurelio is probably a fortnight away from a comeback after a thigh injury sustained almost a month ago, which means the 21-year-old Insua will continue.

However, Benitez stressed that the Argentinian, who has played all-but two Premier League matches this season, needed more support from his team-mates.

"It is not just one situation where you can point to someone," he added.

"The team has to take care of the situation. We have to share the responsibility."

Liverpool FC can salvage
fourth spot with attacking verve

Comment by Ian Rush - Liverpool Echo

When times are testing, inevitably criticism intensifies – especially when you lose to Manchester United.

It was only to be expected that there was a fallout from Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford and many are now saying that Liverpool’s hopes of a top four finish are all but over.

If that proves to be the case, it would be wrong to say the season came off the rails just because we lost away to our biggest rivals as, quite simply, that is not the case.

Put things into context – on its own, you can bounce back from a defeat to United but when you lose to them, having previously been turned over by Portsmouth, Wigan and Sunderland, that’s where your problems begin to really mount up.

Liverpool, unfortunately, are paying the price for their failings earlier in the campaign; the irony, of course, is that during the course of the past eight days, we have just started to play some decent football again.

True, the clash with United wasn’t great but I don’t for one minute think they were vastly superior to Liverpool; what’s more, I’m convinced we would have got a positive result had we not conceded so quickly after Fernando Torres’ opener.

I don’t believe United should have been awarded a penalty for Javier Mascherano’s coming together with Antonio Valencia and, maybe, Alex Ferguson’s musings before the game had an influence on Howard Webb.

There is no mileage, however, in stewing on what has gone before; all Liverpool can do now is press on and aim to take advantage if and when Tottenham and Manchester City drop points on the run in.

Clearly, the situation is no longer in our hands but the fixture list offers us plenty of opportunities to make ground and Liverpool have got to keep believing they can turn the tide, starting at home to Sunderland.

This, though, is the season that is going to be laced with frustration and it’s hard to see Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal battling for the title, while we scrap with City, Spurs and Aston Villa.

If, however, we play with the verve that brushed Portsmouth and Lille aside, fourth place is still possible.

How long will Torres put up with
being out in cold with Liverpool FC?

Comment by Mark Lawrenson - Liverpool Daily Post

I'm not suggesting that Fernando Torres would make any noises abut wanting to leave Liverpool. He loves the club, the fans and desperately wants to succeed at Anfield.

But the facts are inescapable. There’s a World Cup this year and chances are he will be one of the star players in one of the best teams in the tournament.

And once its over, what then? Can anyone seriously believe that a player in that class won’t be in the Champions League next season?

It’s looking more and more likely that Liverpool won’t finish in the top four this season and that’s when you have to start worrying about their ability to hold on to players like Torres.

A good World Cup will probably push his value up to around £50-60million.

Even in the highly unlikely event of that not being enough to persuade a debt-ridden club to part with him, the players have all the power now anyway.

Torres might not want to go, but if he’s stuck in the Europa League next year, is it not reasonable to assume he might feel he’s not fulfilling his potential?

He turned 26 on Saturday. Does he really want to be wasting a year when he could be at the peak of his powers by not playing in the world’s top club competition?

I’m not suggesting for a second that he would end up at Manchester United. But he must have looked at their side on Sunday and imagined what he would do in a team like that.

Let’s face it, Torres would score 45 goals if he was playing for United because they would play to his strengths.

That’s something Liverpool don’t do often enough and that’s deeply frustrating – no wonder Rafael Benitez had to calm his temper down at half-time.

You could tell he was fed up, and he’d already scored as well!

But that’s the thing. He’s scored five goals in three games and has come back from injury absolutely on fire. Basically, he has to put away every chance he gets because the service isn’t there for him.

Even the link with Steven Gerrard has suffered because the skipper isn’t playing in his favourite role either – he’s having to drift wide and back to get the ball but then it’s not in the areas where he and Torres can do damage.

I just felt the Spaniard was looking at his team-mates as if to say, ‘please give me some help here’. He had his eye in after scoring and he had Vidic on toast. But Liverpool seemed to have an unhappy striker on their hands.

All Liverpool can really do about it now is play to his strengths and ensure he gets the goals to somehow propel them to this badly-needed top four finish.

But that’s not in their hands – and perhaps very soon Torres’s future won’t be either.

Whelan believes players
have given up on boss

By Alex Dimond -

Former Liverpool player Ronnie Whelan believes that after Sunday's 2-1 defeat to Manchester United in the Premier League, key members of the Reds' squad have given up on manager Rafael Benitez.

Having watched proceedings unfold at Old Trafford over the weekend, Whelan believes the attitudes of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres throughout the game underline the fact that the Spaniard's time at Anfield must be coming to an end.

"We saw Torres at his brilliant best for the opening goal but turn into a petulant child as the game slipped away," Whelan wrote in his column for Irish newspaper The Herald.

"We saw Gerrard ghosting around the pitch without much purpose, occasionally bursting into activity but mostly ineffective.

"Players usually know when a manager's time is up and if they're smart, a long time before anyone else realises it. It's now plain to see from their performances against Manchester United that they've had enough.

"Rafa Benitez has nowhere to go now. His best players can no longer muster the belief needed to go to Old Trafford and win against the odds.

"They did it for him last season and many times before when his reputation was on the line but not any more."

Whelan also admitted his belief that the club's star assets — particularly Gerrard and Torres — will undoubtedly be having doubts as whether they should stay with the underachieving club.

"They must be having a hard look now at the future and I'm sure there are clubs all over Europe that would be happy to fork out huge amounts of cash for either or both players — even in these recessionary times," the 48-year-old noted.

The former Irish international is also disappointed that the Reds' academy is no longer producing the sort of players that could help the club through its current crisis.

"It wouldn't be so bad if there was a half dozen young lads pushing up from the Academy ranks and filling in the gaps created by poor work in the transfer market over many years," he added.

"Home-grown talent served Liverpool well for many years but Jamie Carragher and Gerrard are the last to come from that source and they've been in the senior team for over a decade."

Rafa: Masch deal almost wrapped


Rafael Benitez accepts there is still a little more work to do to bring contract talks with Liverpool's Javier Mascherano to a resolution.

The two parties have been talking over a new deal for the Argentina captain for some time and Benitez is confident the matter will be resolved to both their satisfaction.

Mascherano, whose current contract still has nearly two years to run, was a target for Barcelona last summer and Liverpool are keen to tie him to a new long-term contract to prevent another close season of speculation, especially in a World Cup year.

Spain goalkeeper Jose Reina will sign his new deal in the next three weeks to join the likes of Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt and Daniel Agger in committing their future to the Reds.

"We were talking, progressing and we're closer now. Still we need to talk a little bit but we are closer," said Benitez.

"It would be very important for the club. We have some important players with some years left on their contracts and this could be another one. It's very important that we're keeping the spine of the team.

"Every fan knows he's a very important player for us, a key player who's good for team spirit. He's an example for a lot of players.

"He shows every game his commitment, desire and passion. He has great character, but he can also play. He's a player every manager would like to have in their team."

Less clear is the future of winger Albert Riera, who last week was suspended for his outspoken comments about Benitez and the club, which he described as a "sinking ship".

Riera will be further disciplined - in the form of a fine - by the club later this week when he returns to training.

But such was Benitez's anger at the content and timing of the Spain international's remarks - coming on the eve of the crucial Europa League last-16 second tie at home to Lille - there is still a possibility the player could be hastily jettisoned.

Riera, who has a Russian wife, has been linked with a move to CSKA Moscow and also Spartak Moscow as the Russian league's transfer window does not close until next month.

Benitez: Reds relying on others


Rafael Benitez remains confident Liverpool can secure Champions League qualification but accepts he is relying on their rivals making mistakes.

Sunday's 2-1 Premier League defeat against Manchester United at Old Trafford - their 10th in the league this season - saw the Reds drop to sixth, four points behind fourth-placed Tottenham.

With Manchester City, in fifth, and seventh-placed Aston Villa both having two matches in hand Liverpool's task is becoming increasingly difficult.

They have seven matches to save their season and Benitez knows they realistically have to win them all.

If they were to do that they would finish the season with 72 points, which was more than enough for Arsenal to clinch fourth last season as they finished nine points clear of Everton.

Of those remaining games, Birmingham away and Chelsea at home present the most difficult challenges.

Tottenham, by contrast, have to play Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United in successive matches with a trip to Manchester City on the penultimate weekend of the season.

City also have to face United and Arsenal in successive weeks, while Villa - currently a point behind Liverpool - have Chelsea, City, Everton and a derby against Birmingham among their fixtures.

"We knew the game against United would be very tough. The question is now about the other teams," said Benitez.

"Tottenham won at the weekend but we have to keep going. We know they have to make mistakes and we have to keep winning games to reduce the gap and be there.

"There are still a lot of points to be played for so we have to keep going. If we can win our games we will be there at the end.

"As a manager you have to believe. It will be more difficult but we have to keep pushing and I think we can do it.

"This year is a difficult year with too many things against but still we have to keep fighting and I am confident the team will be ready for the next game against Sunderland (on Sunday)."

The defeat at Old Trafford came at the end of a week in which Liverpool had beaten Portsmouth 4-1 and then seen off Lille 3-0 in the Europa League.

And although losing to their arch-rivals was disappointing, Benitez insisted it was not as damaging as some were making out.

"The team was doing well last week, playing well and scoring a lot of goals," he said.

"You could see they started well against United. If you go there and don't perform or don't show character or are not strong enough that is not good.

"But we showed we can beat anyone if we play well and if we have some chances we have to take them and it could have been totally different.

"The team was not fantastic but it was not worse than United. You couldn't see the difference in the table out on the pitch.

"I don't think it is a set-back."

Despite the need to put together an unbroken winning run between now and the end of the season the inherently cautious Benitez is not prepared to go for all-out attack.

The form - and demeanour - of captain Steven Gerrard is a concern but it would be unthinkable that the England international would be dropped at a time when confidence is so fragile.

That means £17million midfielder Alberto Aquilani, in spite of his man-of-the-match display against Portsmouth, is destined to only play a bit-part role as the campaign nears its conclusion.

"Sometimes you have to attack but sometimes you have to be careful and defend," said Benitez.

"I don't think we were defending too much [at Old Trafford]. I think we were doing a good job and we were trying to go forward.

"But you have to create more if you want to be sure [of victory].

"Some games you have one chance and you score and in this case we were disappointed because how many chances did they have? How many saves did Pepe (Reina) make? One or two?

"We were trying to get the second goal against United and if you analyse the people we had on the pitch Kuyt is a striker, Maxi Rodriguez can keep the ball well, and we had Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

"After that we put on Ryan, Yossi and Aquilani, who are offensive players, but we were playing against a good team."

Red-dy for the fight

Sky Sports

It may have been a disappointing season for Liverpool, but John Barnes reckons the club are not too far from where they should be.

The Anfield legend joined Ian Payne and Chris Kamara on the Goals on Sunday sofa to discuss the state of his former club and he admitted Liverpool have been too inconsistent in the last decade.

Last season the Reds finished four points behind champions Manchester United, but they are struggling to repeat that form this time around and are involved in a race with Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa for the fourth Champions League spot.

However, Barnes is confident Liverpool will finish in fourth - and says that is arguably where they should finish given the players that Benitez has at his disposal.

"Over the last 10 years they have not been consistent enough," Barnes said.

"Last year, for example, they finished second and I thought it was a great season for them. I happen to believe they overachieved last year because to get that close to winning the league - with what they have - shows what a great job Rafa did.

"They missed Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres a lot so to finish second - when you look at what they have - they overachieved.

"The squad is not as good as Chelsea's or Manchester United or even Arsenal's for that matter, so for them to do what they did last year was incredible.

"This year I expected them to be better, but even though they aren't doing better I wouldn't go as far as to say it breaks my heart because I know things can change.

"I still think they can finish fourth, which in many respects you could argue is where they should finish.

"Should they win the league? No, not with what they have. So it's been a disappointing season but I still think they'll finish fourth."

Benitez has been criticised for spending large sums of money on players such as Alberto Aquilani, who has struggled to command a place in the first team.

However, Barnes says Liverpool have not been able to attract the world's top players for several years and it is difficult for them to compete financially with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United.

However, he says the club can still win trophies and suggested that next season could be an important one for Liverpool.

He said: "I think the problem that Liverpool have now is one they've had for a while - and Liverpool fans hate me for saying this but it's true.

"If the best players in the world are coming to England, they're not coming to Liverpool. It's a fact.

"They're going to go to Chelsea, they're going to go to Manchester United and they're going to go to Arsenal, apart from Torres and that's because of the relationship and the Spanish thing.

"So what do they do? Do they buy players which are as good as what they have but aren't going to improve them? Or do they not spend the money?

"Because they're under pressure to spend money, what you do is you spend money and you don't really increase the quality.

"You're under pressure to spend money and buy players so you pay £20million for Aquilani, who may be a decent player but has been injured.

"What they have to do is they have to galvanise themselves, come together and say 'maybe we haven't got the best players, but we can still achieve'.

"It's a difficult thing. How often are we going to say it's a transitional period because a transitional period is every other year - and it shouldn't be.

"But it's a big season for Liverpool maybe this year. Depending on where they finish, next season's going to be a big season."

Barnes played in Liverpool's last league-winning team in 1990, but says supporters shouldn't be surprised at Liverpool's title drought.

He pointed to various example of teams falling from grace throughout football history and said any club can slip from the top if they do not continually strive to improve.

"That's football," Barnes concluded.

"You have to keep your eye on the prize and you have to be focused because it can easily happen.

"You look at the history of football and you look at great clubs like Preston North End and Wolverhampton Wanderers. These were the top clubs.

"I'm not saying Liverpool are going to go like they have gone, but nevertheless, particularly nowadays when money is so important, you really have to try and keep in the top four and try and push on every year.

"Last year they finished second and it hasn't happened this year, but Liverpool are still a huge football club.

"They'll be in the top four no matter what."

Liverpool FC need
to go for jugular

Comment by James Pearce - Liverpool Echo

They say fortune favours the brave and at Old Trafford yesterday Liverpool simply weren't brave enough.

It was easy to point an accusing finger at referee Howard Webb for his part in a painful defeat which delivered a shattering blow to the Reds' hopes of Champions League qualification.

The erratic official got just about everything wrong, including, crucially, the penalty he awarded when Javier Mascherano fouled Antonio Valencia just outside the box.

It enabled Manchester United to grab a foothold in the game they scarcely merited following Fernando Torres' early header.

Webb gave so many decisions United's way that it was something of a surprise that he gave Liverpool the kick-off after Ji-Sung Park scored what ultimately turned out to be the winner.

Chuck in the fact that Gary Neville got away with a stray boot in Maxi Rodriguez's head and Darren Fletcher escaped with a talking to after lashing out at Dirk Kuyt, then it was no shock that England's World Cup whistle-blower was the target of Rafa Benitez's post-match ire.

But the key reasons for this defeat lie much closer to home.

A year ago Liverpool went to Old Trafford and played United off the park en route to their biggest victory on enemy territory for 73 years.

This time they were overly cautious – more concerned with stifling the title contenders than bossing the game.

The selection of Rodriguez in place of the resurgent Ryan Babel underlined Benitez's defensive mindset.

At the heart of it was surely his desire to ensure there was some protection on the left for vulnerable full-back Emiliano Insua. It didn't pay off.

Rodriguez was on the periphery throughout and ageing United right-back Gary Neville's glaring lack of pace was never exposed.

In stark contrast Insua endured a nightmare as Valencia ran rings around him. All the problems United caused came down Liverpool's left-hand side.

On the other flank Glen Johnson offered nothing going forward and with skipper Steven Gerrard failing to stamp his authority on proceedings, Torres cut an isolated figure.

The move involving Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt which created the opening for Torres to grab his fifth goal in six days was sublime.

But after that they retreated into their shell and, tellingly, United keeper Edwin Van der Sar didn't have another save to make until Yossi Benayoun's tame header at the death.

Torres' afternoon went swiftly downhill. Joy turned to anger at the perceived injustices from Webb and having lost his cool he snatched at two chances late on he would usually expect to bury.

A fifth booking in the space of seven games highlighted the Spaniard's growing desperation at a season which is slipping away.

When Benitez belatedly went on the offensive by introducing Alberto Aquilani, Babel and Benayoun, there was finally some attacking intent but it was too little too late.

Bitter frustration was compounded by the fact that United were there for the taking.

Liverpool are undoubtedly a pale shadow of the side who took the title race to the wire last season but United have also gone backwards.

Wayne Rooney's heroics have largely hidden their deficiencies this season. They can be got at as Liverpool proved at Anfield back in October but yesterday too many of Benitez's men failed to rise to the challenge.

Jamie Carragher stood head and shoulders above his team-mates. The centre-back barely put a foot wrong as he largely nullified the threat of Rooney. If only others had shown the same level of application.

Any defeat to United hurts but this one cut deep.

The mission was two-pronged - to throw a spanner in the works of United's bid to claim a record-breaking 19th top flight title and step up the pursuit of fourth place.

Liverpool's failure leaves Alex Ferguson closing in on his long-standing promise to knock the Reds “off their perch”.

Of more concern today is the fact that it will now take a comeback of Istanbul-like proportions if Liverpool are going to secure their spot in next season's Champions League.

Manchester City's win at Fulham piled on the misery for Benitez after Tottenham had won at Stoke on Saturday.

The harsh reality is that with City, Spurs and Aston Villa all having games in hand, there is a serious risk that the Reds, who have won just four of their 16 away games, will end a dismal campaign in seventh.

There is no margin for error and even maximum points from their remaining seven games may not be enough to turn the situation around.

Benitez insisted he still believes he can deliver on his promise of landing fourth, but it's sounding hollow. To have any hope the boss must now throw caution to the wind and go for the jugular.

Liverpool FC can still finish
fourth, says Jamie Carragher

By Dominic King - Liverpool Echo

Jamie Carragher today insisted Liverpool possess the strength of character to shrug off their disappointment at Old Trafford and get their push for the top four back on track.

The Reds squandered a gilt-edged opportunity to make a statement against Manchester United yesterday as they lost 2-1 despite Fernando Torres giving them an early lead.

With Manchester City and Tottenham – their rivals for the last Champions League spot – both winning at the weekend, the task facing Liverpool on the run in is hugely difficult. Carragher, though, has warned anybody who thinks Liverpool are out of the reckoning now that they have dropped down to sixth place to think again.

He is adamant there will still be plenty of twists and turns in the coming weeks and, having studied the fixture list, is confident Liverpool can still make their presence felt.

“We have just got to recover from this as quickly as possible and get on a run of victories,” said the Reds’ vice-captain.

“We were playing against a top side yesterday and have run them close. It’s really disappointing to lose, as there wasn’t much between the sides in the game.

“You didn’t see too many chances being created but we have lost and you have got to move on, as this was the most difficult fixture we had before the season end.

“Of course we believe we can still close the gap. They will both have difficult spells and we have got to make sure we take maximum points when they do.

“Maybe there will be more criticism of us now and at a club like Liverpool, the pressure is never off. Things are a bit more difficult but we have still got lots of points to play for.”

Once Ji-Sung Park headed in front after Wayne Rooney’s first-half leveller, Liverpool only threatened to score once in the final 30 minutes but Torres took an air shot.

“We did well to a certain point but we played last Monday, then again on Thursday and then had to come into this match,” Carragher pointed out.

“The squad hasn’t been strong enough for one reason or another this season but it was still a big ask to come here after that run, particularly as United had all week to prepare.”

There is little doubt the game changed after referee Howard Webb awarded United a penalty when Javier Mascherano tangled with Antonio Valencia.

Television replays showed the incident took place initially outside the area, while Rafa Benitez claimed Valencia made the most of the incident.

Alex Ferguson, meanwhile, countered by saying Mascherano should have received a red card as Valencia would have been “too quick” for Carragher, who was the last man.

“It was never a sending-off,” Carragher said. “It took place outside the box and I think I would have got there! Pepe (Reina) was unlucky when he saved (Rooney’s) penalty but it bounced back to him.”

Rafa: Fergie influenced Webb

Football 365

Rafa Benitez claimed Sir Alex Ferguson influenced referee Howard Webb's decision to award Manchester United a penalty in their 2-1 win over Liverpool.

Webb gave the penalty after Javier Mascherano brought Luis Antonio Valencia down, despite the foul appearing to begin a few yards outside the area.

Benitez believed Valencia dived, and pointed to Ferguson's complaints about the Football Association being 'dysfunctional' over their disciplinary policy.

"We know about the influence of Sir Alex in everything," Benitez said.

"I've seen three replays and the last one was suspicious. See the replay for yourself and how he fell to the ground."

Asked whether he thought Valencia had dived Benitez said: "From the replay I think so.

"It is not clear but the way he fell strange.

"It made a big difference. We were playing well and had confidence and then one situation changed everything."

Asked if he thought Ferguson's comments about the FA on Friday had an influence, Benitez said:

"Just on Friday he said something? Which Friday? This Friday or every Friday? Or every Friday of every year?

"When you have different opinions you have to express those different opinions. As you know, he has his own opinion about everything."

Predictably enough, Ferguson had a rather different view.

"I thought it was a red card," he said.

"There was no way Carragher could get across and stop Valencia from shooting - he is took quick for Carragher to get across.

"The law is if you stop someone from having a goalscoring opportunity it is a red card. Not today.

"The referee was right, he tugged him down. He didn't bring him down outside the box; he didn't go down until he was inside the box. The decision was correct."

Cautious Benitez pays the price

Comment by Louise Taylor - The Irish Times

There are moments when all football managers must speculate to accumulate – and not just in the transfer market. With Tottenham and Manchester City intensifying their pursuit of fourth place, the time had arrived for Rafael Benitez to go for broke yesterday.

In driving parlance Liverpool were approaching a dangerous corner and their manager needed to demand that they daringly risk accelerating hard into it, thereby gaining the momentum to overtake a queue of Champions League rivals on the home straight.

The price of balking at such a gamble could be not just the loss of a disillusioned Fernando Torres, but a failure to find an investor willing to cough up the €111 million Liverpool desperately require if the Royal Bank of Scotland is to be pacified this summer.

The stakes could not have been higher yet the biggest indictment of Benitez is that he fudged the challenge. The Spaniard’s team-sheet at Old Trafford might have been printed on a white flag. Although technically extremely adroit, Liverpool looked a side configured to nick a draw; had this had been a Sunday afternoon drive, their players would have remained in light-footed, strict fuel-conservation mode.

True, Torres was supported by Steven Gerrard in a withdrawn striking role but, behind that pair, the central midfield double act of Javier Mascherano and Lucas seemed most unlikely to make many, if any, late dashes into United’s box. Out on the flanks, the industrious Dirk Kuyt – who started superbly – patrolled the right wing well enough but, on the left, Maxi Rodriguez was neat but not penetrative.

When Benitez finally introduced the elusive fluidity personified by Alberto Aquilani’s one- and two-touch game along with Yossi Benayoun’s improvisation and Ryan Babel’s pace, it was far too late. Their team-mates were exhausted by an afternoon spent assiduously chasing, harrying, tracking back and passing the ball neatly in front of United’s defence. When a chance arrived to equalise, Torres miskicked and Benayoun’s header was wastefully weak.

With Michael Carrick proving less than inspired and Darren Fletcher primarily about spiky scrapping, yesterday represented a wasted opportunity for Liverpool. Who knows what might have happened had Aquilani started.

Admittedly Sir Alex Ferguson deployed Wayne Rooney alone up front but the England striker’s game was augmented by two genuine wingers in Antonio Valencia and Nani as well as Park Ji-sung’s late darts from an advanced midfield position.

Gerrard played significantly better than of late and Torres started well, connecting with Kuyt’s fine counter-attacking cross and heading brilliantly beyond Edwin van der Sar. But, thereafter, things gradually went downhill. Booked – yet again – his game was studded by flashes of petulance and, despite on occasions demonstrating his power to unnerve Nemanja Vidic, he appeared to lose heart after being clattered by the Serb.

Early on it seemed Benitez threatened to outwit Ferguson but, for Liverpool fans, this proved a chimera and from the moment Rooney equalised Liverpool’s containment policy looked increasingly ill advised.

At half-time a Chinese youth on an exchange visit to Manchester took part in a penalty-taking competition. His attempt struck a post but, ignoring such narrow failure he whipped off a replica shirt and began bowing to all.

No one could blame the boy for a spot of self-delusion in front of 75,000 at Old Trafford but Benitez must realise that, for Liverpool now, hitting the post is not enough.

Rafa reveals fourth fears

Sky Sports

Rafa Benitez has admitted it will be difficult for Liverpool to claim a UEFA Champions League berth after their 2-1 defeat to Manchester United.

The Reds slipped to their 10th defeat of a disappointing Premier League season after goals from Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-Sung cancelled out Fernando Torres' early opener at Old Trafford.

Earlier in the campaign, the Spaniard issued a guarantee that the Anfield outfit would be dining at European football's top table, but he is now aware that the pressure is mounting.

Sunday's setback leaves Liverpool four points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham having played a game more than the North London club, with Manchester City and Aston Villa also strongly in contention.

Benitez remains confident in the abilities of his side and has vowed not to look to far ahead as the season enters its final furlong.

He told Sky Sports: "It will be difficult, but still we have to fight. There are a lot of points to play for so we have to keep going and see what happens in the next game.

"I think they (the fans) can see that the team today was solid again. It is not like we are not doing well, not creating chances or are too weak.

"It depends on the other teams too. We have to win the first one, see what the position is in the table and think about the next one. We have to take one game at a time."

Benitez had no complaints about United's equaliser, with Rooney scoring on the rebound after his initial penalty had been superbly saved by Jose Reina.

Howard Webb pointed to the spot after Javier Mascherano pulled down Antonio Valencia, although initial contact was made outside the box, with the Argentina international booked.

The Liverpool boss added: "It appears that it was inside so it was a penalty, and Carra was there so it was a yellow card."

After a blistering opening with Torres on target after just five minutes and Rooney levelling soon after, there were few clear-cut openings until Park's winner on the hour mark.

Benitez felt his side deserved to take a point from their trip to Old Trafford, but paid tribute to an impressive United display.

He said: "I think it was very tight. They didn't have too many chances, we didn't have too many.

"Between two top sides the difference is always little things and they were better at these things.

"It was a great goal (from Torres), a great header. But we conceded too early and in the second half you could see they are a good team, no doubt about this, but they didn't have too many options and it could have been a draw, with a little bit of luck."

Reds' glory days a distant memory


TEAMtalk reckons Liverpool 2-1 defeat at Old Trafford proves Liverpool are no nearer to winning the title than they were six years ago.

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will argue his strategy was going exactly to plan at Old Trafford until the intervention of referee Howard Webb but in truth the Merseysiders are nowhere near where they want - or need - to be.

A Fernando Torres goal inside the first five minutes was exactly what the Spaniard would have wanted and may even briefly have raised hopes of last year's 4-1 win at the home of Manchester United.

Those dreams evaporated within five minutes when Webb pointed to the spot for Javier Mascherano's foul on Park Ji-sung, even though initial contact had been outside the area.

It was downhill from that point for Liverpool and the 2-1 defeat once again leaves Benitez poring over what might have been.

His side are now four points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, having played one match more, with rivals Manchester City and Aston Villa also having games in hand on them.

Champions League football next season looks a long way off at the moment and Benitez's December 'guarantee' of fourth place is sounding increasingly hollow by the week.

As Liverpool warmed up at Old Trafford their shorts and socks looked more faded yellow than gold - a pertinent metaphor for the club's current status having dominated English football two decades ago.

That 4-1 Old Trafford victory was only 53 weeks ago but on the basis of this performance it could have been from a different generation.

At the time the win, the middle one of three in succession against United, raised expectations that Liverpool would finally end their 19-year championship drought.

It did not as the Reds finished a close second to United even though that game was one of nine victories in the last unbeaten 10 matches of the season.

But that result and subsequent runner-up finish was supposed to be the springboard for a renewed and sustained title bid.

Those hopes were virtually dashed by the second week of the season as Liverpool had lost two of their first three fixtures - as many as they had done in the whole of the previous campaign.

Things have not improved much since as, after early exits from the Champions League and FA Cup, the Reds are still playing catch-up but now it is only for fourth and not first place.

Pressure will grow now on Benitez but even if he does survive beyond the summer the Spaniard's hands are tied.

Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are not the generous benefactors who will hand their manager a transfer kitty to bring in the five quality players star striker Torres claims they need to persuade him he has a long-term future at Anfield.

Without Champions League football another income stream is diminished and the quest for outside investment has still to come to fruition.

It leaves Liverpool in no man's land - where they have been for most of this season - with no light at the end of the tunnel.

There may yet be time for the players to turn things around in the remainder of the season but that will only paper over the cracks for so long.

Their performance against United from the moment they conceded the equaliser, and even more so when they went behind, showed they currently do not have the quality to turn the big matches.

Not like they famously did in the 2005 Champions League final, which tellingly remains Benitez's greatest achievement at the club in his first season in charge.

Despite nearly six years at the helm and a couple of hundred million on transfers Liverpool are no closer to winning the title than when the Spaniard took over.

And for a club the size of Liverpool that has to change. Whether Benitez is around to effect it remains to be seen.

Park makes life miserable for Liverpool

The Irish Times

Manchester United are back on top of the Premier League table after seeing off bitter rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford. Park Ji-sung was the hero for United, stealing in unmarked to head home the winner 30 minutes from the end.

Liverpool struck first in glorious spring sunshine at Old Trafford when an unmarked Fernando Torres headed in Dirk Kuyt's cross after only five minutes but their lead was short-lived.

Park scored what proved to be the winner when he converted Darren Fletcher's cross from the right with a brave diving header.

United moved to 69 points from 31 games, displacing overnight leaders Arsenal who slipped back to second with 67 points. Chelsea, third on 64 points, will go above Arsenal if they win at Blackburn Rovers later this afternoon.

Although victory was not achieved without a nervy ending, during which Torres spurned a glorious chance to equalise, the result kept United’s noses in front of Arsenal and Chelsea.

For Liverpool though, fight was not enough.

When they scored four times in the corresponding fixture last season, it appeared to open the door to that championship Holy Grail. Not only has that been proved fool’s gold, a 10th defeat of the season leaves them requiring slip-ups from Tottenham and others just to finish in a Champions League spot. What Rafael Benitez claimed before Christmas was a guaranteed fourth-place finish could hardly be further away.

Alex Ferguson once claimed that a game of tiddlywinks between what the majority still believe to be England’s biggest clubs could trigger the deepest of passions. Certainly there was no sense of inferiority from the visitors despite their present status, and with good reason.

It was the Merseysiders who had won the last three meetings — each of which featured the dismissal of Nemanja Vidic, who it seems in Torres has found someone he simply cannot handle.

Such is the mystique surrounding that duel there was an audible gasp the first time Torres ran at the Serbian. Like so much of the opening period’s final half-hour, it petered out disappointingly. The spark had been ignited long before that, although Torres was the one who flicked the switch.

By his very demeanour, Torres gave the impression of being a man on a mission. Five minutes into the contest, he seized on the loose ball after Michael Carrick had lost possession, sending Steven Gerrard away at top speed with an inspired backheel.

As Gerrard found Dirk Kuyt to his right, Torres continued his own run, United’s defence never set properly to ensure the Spaniard remained under their control. By the time Kuyt dug out his cross, Torres was on his own.

Park’s wayward effort from a similar position later on proved the goal was anything but the routine effort it looked to be as the Spanish star guided the ball out of Edwin van der Sar’s reach.

Quite apart from falling behind against such fierce rivals, an increasingly enthralling title race demanded a United comeback. For Liverpool, the equaliser came far too quickly. The controversy was immediate too.

Benitez argued Javier Mascherano’s attempt to haul back Antonio Valencia was outside the box, which, indeed, was where the infringement began. Ferguson countered the combative midfielder had prevented a clear goalscoring opportunity.

The managers — no friends these two — continued their finger-jabbing row long after Wayne Rooney had tucked home the rebound from a spot-kick awarded by Howard Webb and saved by Pepe Reina.

That was it for the goal threat until the hour mark arrived. During his long career, Gary Neville has gone on plenty of unselfish runs down the right wing, knowing David Beckham or, more latterly, Cristiano Ronaldo were never going to give him the ball.

Darren Fletcher is not quite of that attacking calibre but Neville must have sensed his run was purely to provide space for the Scot. So it proved. As Neville flew past on the overlap, Emiliano Insua edged to his right. In an instant, Fletcher had exploited the gap and curled over a cross.

As Rooney and Jamie Carragher tussled and tugged, Park arrived behind them, launching himself at the ball like a guided missile and powering the diving header into the corner of Reina’s goal.

Rooney had one more chance before the end, which he fired wide.

Torres was on the end of a far better one when Steven Gerrard drilled over a low cross near the end. For once against United, the Spaniard miscued and Yossi Benayoun headed the loose ball straight at Edwin van der Sar.

United could celebrate, Neville and Ferguson doing the cheerleading. Liverpool’s money men are staring at a big black hole marked Champions League, Benitez is failing on his guarantees.

backbutton.gif (1697 bytes)

Thor Zakariassen ©