Liverpool 2 Wigan 0
Liverpool warmed up nicely for the Champions League as they took a firm grip on third place in the Barclays Premiership.
Dirk Kuyt scored a goal in each half taking his total for the season to 13 in what was a cruise in the sunshine.
Wigan, desperate for something to aid their relegation fight, managed just one serious shot on target and never got close to bothering the Anfield men.
That surely will have disappointed their manager Paul Jewell, a former Liverpool player, who saw his side surrender without a fight and drop closer to the bottom three.
Benitez risked the anger of relegation-fighting managers by leaving Steven Gerrard on the bench – the first time he has not started a Premier League game in a year – while also resting Javier Mascherano and Daniel Agger, with fit-again Craig Bellamy also a substitute.
But Gerrard’s absence until the closing minutes was no hindrance to Liverpool’s progress and Wigan’s demise.
Wigan made four changes from the side that beat Middlesbrough in midweek, with Mohamed Sissoko left out of the 16, the selections clearly with Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final at Chelsea in mind.
Struggling Wigan were no doubt happy to see Gerrard as a spectator, and made two changes from the side that drew 3-3 at home to Spurs last time out. Henri Camara was on the bench while Lee McCulloch was out with a foot injury.
Spurs’ 95th-minute equaliser against Arsenal ahead of this Anfield clash gave Liverpool every incentive to cement themselves into third spot.
But with Bolo Zenden in a central midfield role, they looked weak in an area where Wigan packed their players. And Liverpool were presented with the predictable maze of blue shirts deep in their own half, with only Emile Heskey up front for Wigan.
The pedestrian opening saw Jamie Carragher booked for a trip on Leighton Baines as the full-back attempted to break away. Liverpool’s stand-in Anfield skipper having been caught in possession by Heskey.
But Liverpool began to make in roads, John Arne Riise – on his 300th Liverpool game – fired wide and then saw a shot charged down, while Baines’ sliding tackle stopped Peter Crouch in the act of shooting.
The slow tempo was just perfect for Wigan, they were able to muster their troops with ease, and Liverpool were sloppy in possession and constantly gave the ball away.
But after Baines had again intervened to stop Kuyt bursting through, the Dutchman’s lack of pace again in evidence, the striker did get on the score sheet.
A 30th-minute cross from Jermaine Pennant on the left, saw Kuyt climb above Matt Jackson to head home, keeper John Filan being caught out having started to come for the catch before stopping.
Wigan sunk even deeper into their own half, and one instance saw Paul Scharner not prepared to cross the halfway line to contest a reasonable 50-50 with Carragher, such was the visitors’ game plan.
Wigan sent on striker Camara at the break and took off Ryan Taylor, reverting to 4-4-2. It gave Liverpool that extra midfield space, and when Mark Gonzalez, Kuyt and Crouch combined in a flowing move, the Chile winger stabbed wide inside the six-yard box.
Kuyt then picked up possession 20 yards out and forced Filan into a plunging save, the ball spinning out in the area with no Liverpool player close enough to do anything about it.
But Liverpool were not trying to coast, and that was just an encouragement for Wigan to move forward. Still Liverpool wasted possession, and when Baines got down the left to fire in a cross, it took a strong intervention from Sami Hyypia to stop the ball reaching Heskey six yards out.
On 63 minutes Xabi Alonso was booked for tripping Kevin Kilbane, with Bellamy coming on for Crouch before the re-start. A minute later Caleb Folan replaced Heskey.
But on 68 minutes Bellamy’s pace and drive forced the situation for Liverpool to score again. He scampered into the corner to take a Riise pass, turned and found Kuyt, who spun to place his second past Filan from 12 yards.
Wigan sent on Julius Agahowa for Denny Landzaat, and then Gerrard took over from Zenden with 20 minutes left.
Scharner was booked for tripping Riise, before Daniel Agger came on for Carragher on 73 minutes.
Bellamy’s pace saw Arjan De Zeeuw booked for a clumsy tackle on the touchline.
Wigan’s first serious chance came on 79 minutes when Folan saw a fierce header brilliantly saved by Jose Reina following a Josip Skoko free-kick.
But gaps were now appearing all over the pitch, and Filan had to save well from Kuyt and then Gonzalez. Wigan had long ago accepted the inevitable.