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Liverpool top, but for how long?

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Phil McNulty | 07:30 GMT, Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Rafael Benitez preferred to see his glass as half-full as Liverpool hit the Premier League summit on a wave of Anfield indifference.

Liverpool achieved the draw needed against West Ham to overhaul Chelsea at the top of the table - but this was two points lost rather than one gained and a combination of jeers and disappointment at the final whistle reflected the mood.

Benitez stated that Liverpool's fans will study the league table on Tuesday and be happy with their position as leaders in what promises to be the tightest title race in years.

But you would have needed an industrial-sized microscope to detect any signs of happiness around a freezing Anfield after another goalless let-down..

Benitez is right to talk up Liverpool's current position. There is never a bad time to go top of the table.

He can even use the time-served argument that the omens are good when Liverpool are in pole position without hitting a consistent sequence of good form this season - a straw clutched at by many leaving Anfield after the final whistle.

Indeed, it is hard to mount any critical case against a team that looks down on all others in the league.

But I have rarely seen or heard Anfield less excited by an ascent to the top of the table. Liverpool's fans will know standards must be raised (and Fernando Torres must be fit) to maintain a consistent challenge to Chelsea, Manchester United and maybe Arsenal.

And beneath Benitez's veneer of satisfaction there must be a realisation that Liverpool cannot afford too many more Anfield stalemates if they are to maintain their current position.

Liverpool started as if they were about to sweep West Ham aside, but in the end - inspired by the superb goalkeeping of Robert Green - the Hammers joined Stoke City and Fulham in leaving Anfield with a point after a goalless draw.

I asked Benitez about the frustrations of seeing Liverpool held, but he was in no mood to be downbeat, saying: "I think we deserved to win. We were trying to win from the beginning to the end and that is why they had chances on the counter-attack.

"But we played much better than we have before. Some people will be disappointed, and we are disappointed, but we are top of the league and that means if we keep winning games the other teams have to win everything."

True enough - except that they did not win this game and did not win their last home league game against Fulham either.


Liverpool's blank meant there were plenty of disappointed souls inside Anfield, and right at the front of the queue was Robbie Keane.

The £20.3m striker has had extra responsibilty thrust upon him in the absence of injured Fernando Torres and it did not sit easily on his shoulders against West Ham.

Keane's march to the touchline - with a trademark pained expression accompanied by the familiar strains of sympathetic applause - has almost become an Anfield ritual.

And so it was again on Monday as he saw his number go up for the 15th time this season.

Keane cannot be faulted for effort, but he barely scratched the surface of this game, and he will not have felt any better when it was the youthful and virtually untried figure of David Ngog who was preferred as Liverpool went in search of the crucial breakthrough with 24 minutes left.

Ryan Babel was the more obvious choice of substitute, but Benitez probably compounded Keane's misery with his choice of replacement.

He is finding it a grim struggle to justify his over-inflated price tag - not his fault it should be stressed - and the expectations that come with wearing Liverpool's number seven shirt.

Keane's class is proven, but he is just the latest to discover that playing for Liverpool carries a unique burden and for some it is almost too much.

And if Keane needed confirmation, he only had to look to West Ham's Craig Bellamy, another who appeared to find the baggage that comes with playing for Liverpool too heavy for him.

Bellamy was at his vibrant, busy best against his old club and came closest to breaking the deadlock with a 25-yard drive in the first half that clattered a post and rebounded to safety.

Keane can still come good at Anfield - even Peter Beardsley took time to get into his stride - but there was some tell-tale frustration and impatience amid the support inside Anfield and he needs a change of fortune desperately.

He has not been helped by being played in an unfamiliar role in his partnership with Torres, and his continuity has been broken by constant substitutions, but he will know the time is coming to justify his expensive fee.

One man who will not arrive to threaten Keane is Michael Owen, with Benitez delivering an emphatic and almost unprompted rejection of suggestions he would return to Anfield in January.

But is it actually such a bad idea when a predator in the Owen mould might have poached a goal against Fulham or West Ham?

West Ham boss Gianfranco Zola talked up Liverpool's title chances before the game, so it was a chance to quiz him on whether he had changed his mind on studying fresh, first hand evidence.

He was diplomacy personified as he said: "They are a team that will be there until the end. They are missing a very important player for them in Torres, a player who gives them something different.

"I think this season is going to be a close title, and Liverpool will be involved."

Liverpool's frustrated fans will hope he is right - but the reaction inside Anfield at the final whistle betrayed the doubts they still have about their side's title pedigree.


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