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Benitez gets his timing wrong

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Phil McNulty | 08:30 GMT, Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Rafael Benitez was defiant - no surprise given that he has been little else in two weeks of turbulence created by his decision to wage public war inside and outside Anfield.

Liverpool, are not, he insisted, in the process of proving Sir Alex Ferguson's point that nerves would be their downfall as they chase the title that has escaped them for 19 years.

And the merest suggestion that Benitez himself had cranked up the pressure with his own behaviour, first via a public attack on Ferguson then by revealing his rejection of a new contract, was swatted away emphatically.

Like good comedy, however, the secret of such public pronouncements lies in the timing and Liverpool's late stumble as they were deservedly held to a 1-1 draw by Everton at Anfield suggests Benitez's has got his wrong.

Benitez's bold blast at Ferguson was the catalyst for a stumbling Liverpool performance at Stoke followed by Manchester United's dismissal of Chelsea.

The airing of his contract grievances came just before United hit the top at Bolton and Liverpool failed to take their own chance to move back to the top of the Premier League by beating Everton.

And it seems the nerves are gripping everyone at Anfield.

Morrisey

Marvellous song though it is, "Panic" by The Smiths may not have been the most appropriate choice of pre-match music by Anfield's resident DJ just as Everton fans were giving voice to their belief Benitez was "cracking up".

Of course Liverpool's defenders hardly had Rafa's contract on their mind as Tim Cahill glanced in the 87th-minute header that equalised Steven Gerrard's thunderous strike.

But there is no escaping the simple truth that Benitez has caused needless waves within and without Liverpool at a time when all was going smoothly. Why not just lurk nicely under the radar?

In Benitez's defence, he had a valid argument that Liverpool were only three minutes away from a vital victory and if you had offered them their current position in August it would have been welcomed with open arms.

But, rather significantly, they did not survive those last three minutes and showed too many signs of a team that are not yet convinced they can be champions this season.

And for all his positive words, there was a slump of the shoulders and a resigned body language from Benitez in his post-match inquest that suggests he knows there has been a shift in momentum in the title race, even though it is not by any means a decisive one.

Everton, it must be stressed, are formidable opponents under manager David Moyes and it was not a huge shock when Cahill glanced in Mikel Arteta's vicious late free-kick. More of them later.

But Liverpool, and Benitez's, reaction to taking the lead after 68 minutes was conservatism personified. What they had they intended to hold - a risky strategy at any time, but especially against a team as battle-hardened and resilient as Everton.

It was a toss-up between whether Liverpool felt Gerrard's goal meant it was "job done" or they simply did not have the courage of their convictions to try and finish Everton off.

Either way, caution can no longer be the basis for their title campaign. It has already cost them too much.

Benitez was the subject of some questioning in the aftermath for his decision to remove Fernando Torres shortly before Cahill's goal, sending on the trusted Lucas to see out the final few minutes.

Torres looked exhausted, but if he was to be removed was Javier Mascherano not the better option?

Torres came off early for Liverpool

And once again Robbie Keane endured a nightmare evening before the traditional round of sympathetic Anfield applause accompanied his early departure.

It may be an optical illusion, but on occasions it almost looks like his Liverpool colleagues are unaware of Keane's actual presence on the pitch. The game goes on around him. He waits in vain for passes that never come. He makes runs that are rarely spotted.

He has no natural link with Torres and it is not a pretty sight to see a player who is normally the epitome of exuberance and confidence running on empty when it comes to both of those crucial commodities.

Liverpool's fans certainly did their bit with ear-splitting backing for their team, but they were ominously silent at the final whistle as Everton's supporters celebrated.

And they deserved to celebrate after watching their side make light of paper-thin resources once more.

Moyes is fashioning another excellent season from a group of players who he says would be top of the league if points were awarded for spirit.

In previous Anfield visits, they looked as if it would not actually cross their minds that they could win - a lack of belief reflected in wretched results,

But this was a performance of confidence as well as resolve, with Steven Pienaar leading the way in following Moyes' mantra of bravery in possession.

The heroes, however, were at the back, with Phil Jagielka once again suggesting he cannot be far from an England recall and Leighton Baines playing arguably his finest game for the club.

And, for the team with no strikers, how valuable is the contribution of goalscorer Cahill?

A nuisance for 90 minutes, occasionally driving Martin Skrtel to distraction, he has the priceless knack of arriving unmarked in the penalty area.

Everton have now drawn against Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool this season - the next step they take may be the most crucial.

Self-belief and positive thinking is the key, as it is for Liverpool and Benitez.

Liverpool's title bandwagon has hardly come flying off the rails, but there is little doubt unsteadiness and uncertainty has crept in at a most inopportune time.

Time to put away the politics and focus on the football.

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