Monday 20 January 2020

Benitez’s pride puts Liverpool on notice

Kuyt 37, K Davies 70 og

Dirk Kuyt celebrates scoring Liverpool's first goal on Saturday Photo: Getty Images
Dirk Kuyt celebrates scoring Liverpool's first goal on Saturday Photo: Getty Images

Phil Shaw

THE Kop still crooned his name, while taking those of George Gillett and Tom Hicks in vain, and victory over Bolton eased Liverpool into a position where the "guaranteed" top-four finish is on again.

But even if the claims of an agreed contract lying in a drawer in Italy were untrue, Rafael Benitez’s demeanour does little to suggest he will forgo the chance to join Juventus this summer.

Pressed on Saturday night about his use of the word ‘proud’ in response to reports that the Old Lady of Turin was courting him, Benitez (below) passed up another opportunity to play them down. He once defused speculation linking him with Real Madrid by insisting he was contented and contracted at Anfield. Now it was as if he had finally wearied of waiting for Liverpool’s owners to fulfil their promises.

“I didn’t say anything strange,” Benitez protested. “If a top side wants you as manager you have to be proud, but me, as a manager, I’m really pleased here. I also said I was – I am – really proud to be here. So, no problem.”

In the current climate, the past tense, swiftly corrected, sounded like a Freudian slip. In the meantime it is business as usual and he is striving to recruit at least one newcomer before the transfer window closes today. “We have sold (Andriy) Voronin and (Andrea) Dossena, so we have some money. The question is whether the players are available. You may want to sign a fantastic player and have the money, but they are not available.

“It’s not easy. We don’t have too much time. But we have some names and we’re trying to do something. We have two or three positions we’re working on but I think it will be difficult rather than easy. If you can bring someone that adds something, that will be positive. If you can’t, you have to manage with the players you have.”

The mood of a small yet angry postmatch demonstration against Gillett and the watching Hicks indicated that the stock of the man who brought the European Cup back to Anfield remains high. A Champions League place would placate most of the dissenters. But even a sixth league game without defeat could not mask Liverpool’s shortcomings: an absence of midfield creativity, weakness at full-back and a lack of back-up to the injured Fernando Torres. Benitez knew it, too. “In terms of the effort and commitment you cannot say anything, but we were not playing well in the first half,” he admitted. “I had to raise my voice a little bit at half-time. In the second half it was much better.”

Dirk Kuyt’s close-range finish redeemed an opening period in which Bolton, less rugged and more fluid under Owen Coyle’s stewardship, looked capable of a first league win at Liverpool since 1954. But the breakthrough gave Liverpool confidence. A Kevin Davies own goal made the points safe, Bolton’s captain deflecting Emiliano Insua’s drive.

Davies’s aerial strength has troubled Liverpool before, but the muscular Sotiris Kyrgiakos, kept him relatively quiet. “Soto’s very good in the air. It’s not easy to stop Davies, so he did well,” Benitez said. “He’s strong and likes a challenge. He always wants to be in the team and that’s contagious.”

Liverpool, indeed, have recorded five clean sheets during their unbeaten run, no doubt enhancing his Serie A credentials. “We now have 10, one fewer than Chelsea,” Benitez added. “If we can stay at the same level in defence and improve in attack, that’s the way to win games.”

Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Carragher, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos, Insua; Mascherano, Aquilani (Lucas, 65); Kuyt, Gerrard, Riera (Rodriguez, 74); Ngog (Babel, 84). Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk), Agger, Darby, Pacheco.

Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Steinsson, Knight, Cahill, Ricketts; Lee, Muamba (Elmander, 78), Cohen (Gardner, 60), M Davies, Taylor (Weiss, 65); K Davies. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Robinson, A O'Brien, Wilshere.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Liverpool Mascherano; Bolton Lee, M Davies, Knight.

Man of the match: Mascherano.

Attendance: 43,413.

The Throw-In: New era for Dublin, all up for grabs in the hurling league and club final heroics

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport