Benitez's brinkmanship strikes again
Rafael Benitez's twin boyhood passions were football and a Spanish military board game called "Stratego" - both appealing to his calculating mind and analytical approach.
So when faced with a simple calculation on the coach journey to Anfield to face Manchester United, Benitez weighed up the odds and took a gamble that could shape Liverpool's season.
Liverpool's figures of influence, from Kenny Dalglish and managing director Christian Purslow to co-owner George Gillett, had formed an orderly queue to insist the club's worst run in 22 years had not shaken belief in Benitez.
But this most singular man, with an astonishing ability to polarise opinion, knew a fifth successive loss was not an option as he considered the appeal of playing Fernando Torres, despite a groin injury that left the Spain striker short of fitness.
"He was not 100% fit or fresh but sometimes 80% of Fernando can make a difference," said Benitez. So the decision was made after a conversation between the pair on the team coach - and as the circus left town in search of a fresh crisis with skies darkening over Anfield on Sunday, Benitez's brinksmanship had struck again.
Benitez had avoided the ignominy of having Liverpool's most wretched run of form in 56 years on his jealously-guarded CV by overseeing a resounding win played out in a seething, hothouse atmosphere only Anfield can conjure up when backs are pressed against the wall.
Not only had Benitez released the pressure valve on his own position, Liverpool's performance also performed the neat trick of shifting questions back towards Manchester United after their third successive win against Sir Alex Ferguson's side.
Former Liverpool manager Graeme Souness has been a strident critic of Benitez in recent days, but strange as it seems the pair may share common ground. Souness once claimed he was "turned on by the aggravation of management" - and you start to wonder whether the latest man in the Anfield chair feels the same.
How else can you explain Benitez's apparent desire to take himself to the brink, whether it is via poor results or some perceived political slight behind the scenes, before pulling back by producing the big one when required?
Benitez felt the first sounds of Anfield's opinion shifting against him near the conclusion of the Champions League defeat against Lyon, but gathered his forces here to oversee a victory that had him once more hailed as the hero of Anfield at the final whistle on Sunday.
Delighted Liverpool fans celebrate on The Kop
And just in case anyone was likely to miss it, Benitez put on this show in front of watching Liverpool's co-owners Gillett and Tom Hicks, as well as their entourage.
The atmosphere at Anfield was electric from an hour before kick-off. Manchester United should have been on safe ground against a Liverpool side at odds with itself and a manager at a pivotal point of his five-year tenure.
Liverpool's political problems were also on show, with a demonstration before the game against the club's American rulers - a sideshow effectively rendered pointless by the performance of their players. No-one was interested in protests when Liverpool's fans had a triumph like this to revel in.
Instead United found themselves on dangerous territory, facing a manager, players and a set of feverish fans ready to rise up against charges of revolution in the ranks.
The secret of good comedy is timing - and it was clear Manchester United's fans were taking a chance in donning their Eric Cantona masks to taunt Liverpool about equalling their 18 league titles and blowing up their beach balls to mock the loss at Sunderland.
Benitez's track record of escapology suggested Liverpool might have the last laugh and an already charged atmosphere moved up another notch when Torres confirmed Benitez had taken his punt by charging out for the warm-up with intent.
Torres, 80% fit or not, provided an extra charge of adrenalin for Anfield and his Liverpool team-mates - and struck blind terror into Manchester United's defensive pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand.
Liverpool, without injured inspiration Steven Gerrard but fuelled by the noise rolling off the stands, should have been ahead by the time Torres, in a blinding flash, swept past Ferdinand with an ease that should be of immediate concern to Ferguson, and a more long-term worry for England coach Fabio Capello, to break the deadlock.
And the belief that Torres has messed with the head of the formidable Vidic since taking him to the cleaners in Liverpool's 4-1 win at Old Trafford last season was only underscored by the Serb's ham-fisted attempts to mete out his own form of physical intimidation.
Three times in three games he has failed to survive the 90 minutes against Liverpool and the cruel jibe is already doing the rounds that "trick or treat" children will turn up at Vidic's house on Halloween wearing Torres masks.
Liverpool's greater energy and heart for the battle also came in the shape of the outstanding Yossi Benayoun (surely Benitez can no longer contemplate leaving him out) and the derided Lucas, who was so influential in midfield.
Benitez did not look like a man who had ridden out a storm as he calmly dissected a vital victory in his post-match media briefing - although the manager who many feel treads too solitary a path broke with tradition to dish out praise in all directions.
He will know, he surely must, that even a victory as momentous as this cannot mask the disappointing start Liverpool have made to their season, although they now stand only four points behind the champions after showing why some pundits were audacious enough to even tip them for the title.
David Ngog's goal was met with deafening roars of relief and joy, with goalkeeper Pepe Reina showing how much it all meant with a sprint from one end of Anfield to the other.
Benitez may have survived the latest turbulence, but Liverpool need more than one lung-busting effort inspired by The Kop to prove this is a genuine turning point as opposed to mere temporary respite.
Liverpool and Benitez would be foolish to think the slate has been wiped clean on one stunning afternoon. No use raising the game for Manchester United if it slips back down at Fulham next week.
For Manchester United, the small cracks that have appeared in recent weeks opened just a little wider at Anfield - and suddenly Ferguson is in charge of a team that might just come under closer scrutiny.
Ferguson griped about a couple of decisions but had no serious complaints about the result. And how it must pain him that Liverpool are showing signs of becoming a Nemesis to United in their league meetings, if not yet in their overall pursuit of the title.
United escaped with a draw against Sunderland and hung on to beat Bolton Wanderers, but they have not been at their best this season and Liverpool were able to cash in on this uncharacteristic vulnerability.
Ferdinand's form must remain a concern. He almost sagged as he admitted defeat in his quest to contain Torres in the game's defining moment. He is currently nowhere near the player he once was, and for United and England's sake it is to be hoped his rehabilitation is swift.
Problems were also detected for United further up the field.
Ferguson cannot be criticised for selling Cristiano Ronaldo because the player wanted to go and the timing and the fee was right. It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that United must add at least one top-quality attacking addition to augment the arrival of Michael Owen and the promising Antonio Valencia.
United insist the Ronaldo money is not burning a hole in their pocket, but they are light in world-class attacking talent these days and Ferguson needs to address the problem.
Indeed there were times yesterday when even the nuisance value of Carlos Tevez would have at least posed questions for Liverpool's defence, superbly marshalled by Jamie Carragher, to answer and I was never totally convinced of his worth to the United cause.
Wayne Rooney was busy without being at his best, while Dimitar Berbatov's admirers might kindly label him as enigmatic. He still falls short of what is required of a £30m striker and the contrast between the Bulgarian and Torres was marked.
Torres struggled for much of the game, going to ground too easily, but when the big moment came he delivered with a surge of pure urgency and pace that appears beyond the languid, although lavishly gifted, Berbatov.
Berbatov, with a feint here and a flick there, seemed content to try and lazily pick the lock while Torres picked up the sledgehammer and banged the door down.
It was no surprise when Berbatov was replaced by Owen with 16 minutes left, a move that in my opinion brought the only minus mark for Liverpool's supporters on an afternoon when they provided magnificent backing.
The venom that accompanied Owen's arrival was out of proportion with the offence he is deemed to have committed. He has committed, in Anfield's eyes, the cardinal sin of signing for Manchester United, but does this really merit the scale of abuse he was subjected to?
No-one would suggest for a minute he should have bouquets lobbed in his general direction, but some very short memories were on show at Anfield. This was a player who was a great striker for Liverpool and who would have come back in the summer had they shown any interest.
Call me old-fashioned, but I question the logic when a player such as Robbie Keane is afforded a more generous welcome back to Liverpool by supporters than Owen, a man who brought trophies to Anfield, even single-handedly on occasions.
This complaint aside, it was emphatically Liverpool's day and further proof that both they and their manager are at their most dangerous when they are wounded and the obituaries are about to be written.
Benitez, almost inevitably given his previous form, lives to fight another day and the platform has been provided for Liverpool's season to lift off. Now can they take advantage?
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