AN old acquaintance was in attendance to see Rafa’s revival stall, again.
A curious cocktail of sorrow and relief must have formed in Xabi Alonso’s stomach as he witnessed Liverpool’s second half capitulation.
Relief that, since his summer move to Real Madrid, defeats like this do not professionally affect him and sorrow that his former club, for which he has much affection, have become so eminently beatable.
Unless he has been living in a cave in the Spanish capital Alonso will have been aware that the club he watched yesterday are markedly different from the one he left during the summer.
While last season’s vintage went the entire campaign unbeaten at home, this term a calendar month can barely pass without Anfield losing a little bit more of its aura.
Benitez’s class of 2009-10 have already lost four times at Anfield.
Perhaps consolation can be taken from the fact that the Europa League will provide tamer opposition than the Champions League from which they have already been eliminated – thanks in part to home reversals at the hands of European middleweights Lyon and Fiorentina – but the Premier League offers little respite to a failing side who had already been beaten 3-1 at home by Aston Villa before yesterday’s defeat.
The original Manchester enemy may have been beaten 2-0 and City’s nouveau riche held to a 2-2 draw but of the clubs who could challenge them for one of the precious Champions League places they still await the visit of Tottenham, who subjected them to an opening day beating at White Hart Lane, and, of course, Chelsea, for the final league fixture of the season at Anfield.
Perhaps Rafa’s revival will have gained momentum by then, but right now it is the epitome of inertia.
Before yesterday the Spaniard was typically bullish, insisting: “I am sure the club is still going forward, the value of the squad is higher now than it was when I came.
“I have to be positive and say we can finish in the top four, I know the quality we have here and I don’t think I am being unrealistic.’’
There is positivity and then there is a level of myopia that makes yesterday’s foe Arsene Wenger appear a paragon of reason and impartiality.
Five wins in 13 games, elimination from the Champions League at the group stage and a points total on a par with Birmingham City as we approach the midway point of the season – none of these suggest forward progress for a club that were only beaten twice in the league last season and amassed the highest points total to never win the Premier League.
As regards the value of Benitez’s squad, depreciation must surely be giving appreciation a run for its money in relation to a couple of his signings.
Once again England full-back Glen Johnson impressed when bombing down the right flank, less so when asked to perform his principle task of defending.
While it would be harsh to apportion too much blame in his direction for the own goal, there is little denying he was found wanting for the second and was too easily flummoxed by Andrey Arshavin’s change of feet.
At least Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, particularly when linking up in the first half, proved themselves to be Liverpool’s two most valuable assets, but the Merseyside outfit lack depth.
Trailing with 11 minutes to go Benitez’s trump attacking card was French youngster David Ngog and his three league goals. Even injury-ravaged Arsenal could have sprung Carlos Vela and Eduardo da Silva had they felt the urge.
Perhaps the watching Alonso is left as confused as everyone else that his ostensible replacement at Anfield remains swathed in the footballing equivalent of cotton wool – though the alacrity with which Benitez introduced Alberto Aquilani upon falling behind will have encouraged Liverpool fans. So sparing has been his use since recovering from an ankle injury that few will take umbrage with the Italian’s negligible impact.
Trailing fourth-place Aston Villa by five points, Benitez will be hoping his revival can gain some traction at home to Wigan on Wednesday.
If it can be maintained away to Portsmouth and at home to Wolves then perhaps Benitez can look forward to the seemingly pivotal 29 December visit to Villa Park with some well-founded confidence to go with his wishful thinking.
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