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Benitez continues defiant approach

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Phil McNulty | 00:26 GMT, Sunday, 11 January 2009

Britannia Stadium, Stoke

Liverpool's most impressive performer at Stoke City was combative, confident and up for the fight - sadly for their hopes of turning the screw on Manchester United and Chelsea, the man in question was manager Rafael Benitez.

Benitez was the only story in town on a freezing Saturday night in the Potteries after he became the self-appointed slayer of the biggest beast in the Premier League jungle.

And he marched into the media suite and stunned those of us expecting a straight bat - or perhaps even the appearance of assistant Sammy Lee rather than the man himself - with another lacerating attack on Sir Alex Ferguson.

The problem for Liverpool was that while Benitez was bristling with open defiance and firing statements of positive intent in the direction of Old Trafford, the men charged with the task of winning the title were doing exactly the opposite.

Liverpool were the flip side of their manager's confrontation approach as Stoke City earned a deserved point and could have had more.

True Liverpool could have stolen three points when Steven Gerrard glanced the woodwork twice late on, but even Dick Turpin would have blushed at such an act of daylight robbery.

Liverpool probably could have done without a trip to the Britannia as their first port of call following Benitez's declaration of hostilities towards Ferguson.

The Britannia is a raw and exciting footballing experience, unwelcoming temperatures and hostile home fans, with the action all played out in a noisy, bearpit atmosphere that is a real throwback.

And yes, it is absolutely fantasic.

But what of the man of the moment?

Benitez is seen through some eyes as "The People's Champion", speaking what many regard as the previously unspoken truth about Ferguson. To others he is displaying the first signs of falling for the latest move by the master of the mind games.

rafaelbenitezatstoke.jpg

The truth, as ever, may lie somewhere in between, but the Benitez on show at the Britannia refused to retract a single word and did not need the help of a sheet of A4 paper to outline the extent of his feelings toward the man he was very careful to call "Mr Ferguson" on countless occasions.

A swift canvassing of media opinion came up with the theory that if Benitez wins the title he will be hailed as a genius. If he does not he can put a black ring around 9 January 2009 as the day it may have started to go wrong.

If the pressure was telling, Benitez disguised it brilliantly.

In the face of such attention he was calm, jovial and even threw out some very mischievous grins as he delivered a succession of barbs at the Scot. Regrets? Not a chance - if anything the message was even more strident.

As previously stated, his words might have carried more weight if Liverpool had not just given one of their worst performances of the season.

And the suspicion remains that, for all his verbal jousting with Liverpool's most dangerous opponent, caution remains Benitez's default option when it comes to tactics.

Stripped of the creativity of Xabi Alonso, Benitez plumped for a holding pair of Lucas and Javier Mascherano in midfield.

Safety first?

It looked that way, especially with Fernando Torres and Robbie Keane sitting on the bench and the former not introduced until the hour mark, when most of the momentum had evaporated from Liverpool's play. Keane never even got close to coming on and wore the familiar mask of frustration that is becoming the hallmark of his Liverpool career so far.

Only a fool would suggest a wheel is wobbling after a draw in what is becoming a notoriously tough environment for any team, but there was a lack of self-belief about Liverpool and too often those crucial 50-50 balls went the way of Stoke.

If there were pluses, it was in the way Liverpool stood up to some real periods of aerial bombardment and took a point from a game they may have lost in previous seasons. Even on an off day - and make no mistake this was one - Liverpool now have more of the steely mentality needed by champions than they have had before.

Stoke will take second billing to the Benitez sideshow, but they deserve their fair share of credit for a point well-earned. If manager Tony Pulis can pluck out a goalscorer in the transfer window, then do not bet against them staying up.

Their fans believe they can do it - and the players look like they believe as well, at least at home.

For Liverpool, this must be regarded as two points lost and a missed opportunity to give Benitez's message that Ferguson is "a little bit scared" a touch more resonance.

There was one final, ironic touch of torture for Liverpool, with their departing fans treated to the strains of their very own Master of Mirth Ken Dodd singing his legendary hit "Happiness"

Knotty Ash's King of Comedy himself would not have spotted too much tattifilarity or discumnockeration among the frozen travelling hordes. Happiness? Not today thanks.

Next stop Old Trafford and Ferguson's considered response to Benitez's attack and a result at the Britannia that would have suited him nicely.


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