Benitez and O'Neill on the offensive
Rafael Benitez marched briskly through Anfield's main entrance nearly two hours after defeat to Aston Villa and moved to reassure a concerned Liverpool supporter with the words: "We keep going."
Early days to be delivering such a message - but there is no doubt unease is in the air at Anfield as Liverpool's second loss in their opening three league games ensured they equalled their total for the whole of last season.
Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill, himself subjected to the first undercurrent of questioning about his tenure before this win, complained that it was "staggering" that prophecies were being made about a team's fate on the basis of one or two games.
And there is no reason for Liverpool to be discounted as Premier League title contenders on the basis of what can reasonably be described as undistinguished opening fortnight.
No-one, however, can escape from the reality that this has not been the start Benitez or Liverpool planned and it was reflected in the mood of deflation as the manager pointed an accusing finger at his senior professionals.
Benitez's (pictured below, left) body language was downbeat as he repeated the complaints he made about Liverpool in their defeat at Spurs - too careless in possession, lacking in precision. All words that once again drew attention to the Xabi Alonso-sized hole in Liverpool's team that Alberto Aquilani will be expected to fill when fit.
How ironic that Benitez's programme notes went under the banner headline of "Long unbeaten home record shows we're doing right things" when they sprinkled their work with so many wrong things against Villa.
It was reference to a sequence that stretches back to Carlos Tevez's winner for Manchester United in December 2007 - now they must make Anfield inpregnable once more.
Other, more unpredictable, factors were at work as Villa used Anfield as the stage to effectively start their own season after faltering first steps.
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, under the gaze of England coach Fabio Capello, had one of his poorest games in recent memory after a lively opening. Gerrard epitomised the failure to keep possession that so irked Benitez, rounding off his night by rashly chopping down Nigel Reo-Coker to give away a crucial penalty that gave Ashley Young Villa's third goal.
And Fernando Torres, for all his undoubted brilliance, once again allowed himself to be sidetracked into the pointless bickering with officials and the opposition that earned him a public rebuke from Benitez after similar behaviour at Spurs.
Sure, Torres took a few heavy knocks, but his petulance and regular habit of going to ground reduced his threat and signalled a moral victory for Villa's stout defence, despite his late goal. Benitez may need to make his point more forcibly.
As with Manchester United in the post-Cristiano Ronaldo days, every Liverpool performance has a tendency to be examined in the context of Alonso's absence.
And while it is too simplistic to put Liverpool's faltering start to their campaign down to the Spaniard's departure for Real Madrid, a layer of creation is missing from Liverpool's midfield, as it was at White Hart Lane.
Lucas - an unfortunate soul whose own goal that gave Villa the lead only adds to the suspicion that he is accident-prone - and Javier Mascherano cannot dictate tempo and provide ammunition in the manner of Alonso.
Liverpool lacked the rhythm and pace that made them almost irresistible in the final three months of last season, notably when they thrashed Villa 5-0 at Anfield in March.
Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt were marginal figures, leaving Liverpool without the width and craft to unlock Villa, although new boy Glen Johnson did deliver occasional quality.
And for all the complaints about Villa's corner in added on time in the first half, the poor marking that allowed Curtis Davies to glance in a vital second goal has been witnessed before. Often.
On this evidence, Aquilani's swift recovery from his latest injury is essential. Liverpool and Benitez have a lot riding on the Italian because the word is Rafa is more or less spent up in the transfer market.
Benitez's dissatisfaction was predictable and easy to understand, but opposite number O'Neill was hardly the life and soul of the party either despite releasing Liverpool's eight-year stranglehold on Villa, avenging that fearful Anfield thumping, inflicting defeat on an old managerial adversary and putting his first Premier League points of the season on the board.
Surely enough for any manager? Not O'Neill. He had an itch he had to scratch and the irritation was caused by something close to home.
This is the man who once lectured Robbie Williams about his career live on television - so he had no hesitation in serving it up to the Villa fans who jeered the side off at half-time in their opening day defeat at home to Wigan Athletic.
He has proved before he has a long memory for critics and it was clear he was deeply wounded by what he regarded as a premature panning of his team.
O'Neill rightly praised Villa's defence for their stout resistance - Brad Friedel continues to be an outstanding goalkeeper - and the efforts in midfield and attack that not only ensured protection but carried threat.
But he was visibly still irked by the Wigan experience and it was duly noted that he stood motionless in his technical area, a landmark moment in itself, when Villa's fans demanded a wave from their mercurial manager in the second half.
O'Neill may have been deep in contemplation, and he did acknowledge Villa's fans later, but his obvious disquiet later suggested otherwise.
I asked O'Neill whether he was hurt by the criticism and he said: "We have won at Anfield and the players were simply brilliant.
"I said at the time if you are booed off at the end of the game when you have not played well and you deserve that then fine, but I was disconcerted by it at half-time against Wigan. I didn't hear Liverpool being booed off at half-time when they were two goals down here."
Point made and he had one. It is a big season for O'Neill, his fourth at Villa and one when he needs to at least make close acquaintance with silverware, but to deliver a resounding raspberry in the general direction of such a manager and his team 45 minutes into a new season is nonsensical.
O'Neill will be delighted that after two defeats there were signs on show at Anfield that he has foundations in place, with Stewart Downing to come later in the season - although he will need to fill his squad out inside the next seven days for battles ahead.
Villa fit the traditional O'Neill template of pace on the flanks and power at the back. He must now ensure they do not run out of steam, as they did so spectacularly last season.
Expectations are even higher at Anfield and Benitez knows every defeat will bring more scrutiny as Liverpool attempt to end a 20-year wait for the title in a season when many pundits believe they have the team to achieve it.
Benitez will simply hope this is a false start as opposed to Liverpool failing to cope with the heightened expectations and pressure. It was a performance, however, with ominous undertones.
Liverpool's manager was unhappy. Aston Villa's manager was only marginally happier. And yet there was no doubt who departed Anfield the more contented man.
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