Benitez denies Gerrard bust up

RAFAEL BENITEZ has thrown himself into crisis mode after Liverpool’s latest setback against Stoke but his ability to keep a sinking ship afloat cannot hide the fact they are bailing out water on the Anfield decks this morning.

Benitez will defy speculation about his future by calling for an ‘us against the world’ mentality at the club’s Melwood training ground as he assesses another lead thrown away.

He can rightly point to the hard work and commitment shown by his players during a gritty 1-1 draw at the Britannia Stadium but the real depth of Liverpool’s slump was shown not only by Robert Huth’s 90th minute equaliser but also by the overall quality of their line-up.

With Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Glen Johnson and Yossi Benayoun all injured Liverpool’s inadequate squad left David Ngog up front on his own and an uninspiring midfield of Degen, Lucas and Aurelio behind him.

Add in a crisis of confidence, no creativity in sight and Alberto Aquilani sitting glumly on the bench and perhaps it was inevitable Sotirios Kyrgiakos’ second-half goal would not prove to be the winner.

But Benitez, who has remained stoic in the face of rumours sweeping internet messageboards that he will soon be replaced by Guus Hiddink, Roy Hodgson or even Alex McLeish, has insisted progress is being made.

“Sometimes you can make one mistake and you pay for it,” he said. “We have had this problem in a few important games now, two against Lyon in the Champions League and we were out, one in the FA Cup against Reading and we were out. It is difficult to manage. But the Reading game was different to this one. We made some mistakes with our positioning against Reading and this one, there are 20 balls into the box every single minute so it is not easy to defend.

“We tried to do our job and we showed here that the team is full of character. The effort of players was fantastic. We were so close to winning that you have to be disappointed but the performance was good.

“With five or six players out injured I thought we did well. We know we have to defend better but the positive thing was the team spirit and the character.”

Benitez, whose team now face Tottenham at Anfield on Wednesday, also moved quickly to dismiss rumours of a dressing-room fallout with captain Gerrard, who is reported to be considering a move to Real Madrid if Liverpool’s slump continues much longer.

“It’s not true,” insisted Benitez. “He was at the game in the stands to support the team. He wanted to show his commitment. He was in the dressing room with me and the rest of the players and staff.

“There is no problem. He is very disappointed that we have not won these games like everyone else but he was here to help. He is the captain and he was here supporting the team. People were asking me about rumours of a disagreement but it is 100% not true.”

Whatever the situation between manager and captain, however, it is the fragile mental state of his team and the woeful lack of quality on show that will concern Benitez most.

Dirk Kuyt spoke after Saturday’s match about a “lack of confidence” in the team while Fabio Aurelio has admitted the constant pressure of making mistakes has taken its toll.

“Conceding these late goals takes a lot out of you as a player,” he said. “We came to Stoke knowing we could win and we were practically there. Then suddenly one ball, one corner, and it’s 1-1. It was an opportunity to start winning again and we missed it.

“But we have to take heart from the performance. We have a lot of quality players missing and the players who have come in for them want to take responsibility.”

It remains to be seen whether Liverpool’s second-string players have the quality to achieve that aim and judging by this match it seems unlikely. But Benitez found an unlikely ally in the shape of Stoke’s Salif Diao, an ex-Liverpool player who took time out to defend his former manager.

“If Benitez is left there to do the job he will do it – he will pull them through this. He has already shown his capabilities,” said Diao.

“I think it’s a real possibility that they will finish in the top four. They have great players to come back and a decent team even without the main men. They need a bit of turn-around in luck. But maybe getting a point at Stoke isn’t such a bad thing for them – I think it’s taken a lot of guts for them to do what they have here. They were under the cosh and showed courage to respond.”

That much is undeniable but the real question is whether character and spirit will be enough to keep Liverpool in contention for the Champions League and Benitez in contention to keep his job.

If not, then Benitez could soon be experiencing that sinking feeling after all.

Match rating: ** – A real lack of quality with very little football played by either team until some much-needed excitement in the final 10 minutes.

Referee: Lee Mason (3/10) – A miserable performance from an official who missed two clear penalties, made a string of poor decisions and irritated supporters and players with his pernickety approach.

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