Friday 23 March 2018

Benitez cries foul after late Stoke leveller


Joe Lovejoy at Britannia Stadium

Rafael Benitez was denied refuge from the storm threatening to engulf him by a 90th-minute equaliser from Robert Huth.

Liverpool thought they had won it with a scruffy second-half goal from Soitirios Kyrgiakos, but battling Stoke refused to accept defeat and their spirit had its reward at the death.

Liverpool were quick to point out that they were denied a penalty when Lucas was brought down inside the area by Danny Higginbotham, and that Dirk Kuyt might have won it in added-time, when he headed against a post when it seemed easier to score.

Benitez maintained that Lucas was hauled back in the box before Kuyt hit the post.

"You can watch them a hundred times on replay and you would always say they were penalties, the decisions were wrong," said Benitez. "The players were angry afterwards, everyone could see there were two penalties. But you have to keep going when things are not going your way. The main thing for me was that the players were positive from start to finish, they produced a real performance for the club.

"The result was difficult to take. We were winning until the 89th minute. We lost two points here. Everybody could see we were denied two penalties but the main thing was that we showed the right character."

Stoke were plucky but prosaic -- as one might expect from a team for whom no player has scored more than three league goals all season -- and it speaks volumes for Liverpool's decline that they could not see them off. Last year's runners-up would have been out of sight by half-time.

The first surprise came early, with the announcement of the Liverpool team. There had to be sympathy for Benitez over the absence of Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun, who between them have contributed more than two-thirds of Liverpool's goals this season, but there was only head-scratching over the selection of Philipp Degen ahead of Alberto Aquilani in midfield. Degen, who regards himself principally as a defender, has been such a flop since his arrival from Dortmund 18 months ago that he had previously made only one start in the Premier League, at Fulham, where he was sent off.

Among the sizeable Scouse contingent present, there was also apprehension -- unfounded as it turned out -- about the promotion of another poor signing, the hirsute Kyrgiakos, who covered for the injured Daniel Agger in central defence. In the circumstances, it was with some relief that Liverpool saw Rory Delap, of the howitzer throw, depart hors de combat mid-way through the first half. With him went Stoke's likeliest route to goal.

The only incident of note in a tediously mundane first half saw Liverpool refused a penalty when Lucas, cutting in from the right, was floored by Higginbotham. It was clearly a foul, but the referee compounded one obvious error with another, booking Lucas for diving.

The theory that it could only improve proved correct in the 57th minute, when Fabio Aurelio's free-kick from the right was spilled by Sorensen and Kyrgiakos bundled the ball over the line from three yards.

Suddenly the mood changed. From having the home fans taunt him with choruses of "You're getting sacked in the morning", Benitez heard his name chanted by the travelling loyalists.

But the vocal backdrop was to change to "You're not singing any more" when Matthew Etherington's corner from the right was headed back across goal from the far post by Higginbotham for Huth to equalise from point-blank range.

"I was very pleased," said Benitez afterwards. "It is something we can build on. Talk of problems in the dressing room are not true. You could see the response from the players' point. Is someone saying there is a problem with Steven Gerrard? Not true. He was here today supporting the team, that says everything."

Sunday Independent

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