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Reds Push It But Don’t Quite Cut It – Liverpool falter at another fence in the race for fourth


By Phil Dickinson.

Liverpool’s hopes of securing Champions League football next season were all but ended yesterday after they failed to break down a dogged Fulham side at Anfield, Benitez later admitting to the press that fourth place was “a little bit far away”.

Despite resting a number of key first team players, Liverpool completely dominated, creating a host of good chances throughout the course of the game. But Benitez’s side were tragically lacking the killer instinct in front of goal that saw them put four past a fluent and expansive Benfica side, the game ending goalless.

In truth, it was a game that followed a familiarly frustrating pattern for Benitez. It was an inability to break down resolute defences and the lack of clinical edge in front of goal at key moments which saw Liverpool draw 7 games at home and ultimately fall short of the title last season. This season, the team’s form at Anfield has not really been the issue. But yesterday, we got a stark remind of the problem with which Rafa Benitez toiled all last season.

Despite having 18 efforts on Mark Schwarzer’s goal, chances falling to Alberto Aquilani, Maxi Rodriguez and David Ngog, Liverpool failed to convert, making it one goal in 180 minutes of league football.

It was clear for all to see that Liverpool badly missed a fit and firing Fernando Torres, who had scored 9 goals in the club’s previous 7 matches, over half the side’s 17 goals in those games. The Spanish striker missed the game with a knee injury and The Reds now face an anxious wait to see if he will be available to fire them to Europa League success. The fact that El Niño has been sent to see a specialist has sparked fears that his season could be over.

However, Torres was not the only important name missing against Fulham, and questions will undoubtedly be raised as to why Benitez chose to leave Dirk Kuyt and Yossi Benaynoun on the bench in such an important game. Looking at the team sheet before kick off, it looked a risky ploy and one that again suggested Benitez sees the Europa League as the club’s only real priority. In the end, Liverpool might have nicked the win anyway, but the longer the opening goal eluded them the more it looked like the services of their second and fourth top scorers might have been needed from the very start.

And Benitez admitted after the game that he now has to be realistic about Liverpool’s chances of finishing in the top 4.

“It will be very difficult [to finish in the top four]. It’s not in our hands. Maybe the difference is too much now. You have to be realistic.

“City have a game in hand and even if they don’t win then there’s Tottenham.

“But we have to keep going because it’s always important to do your best and finish as high as possible. We’ll try to win the rest of our games and also try to be ready for the Europa League.

“I’m disappointed because we had plenty of possession and some good chances. It’s a game that’d normally finish 1-0 or 2-0. But we couldn’t score.”

One wonders, however, because of his insistence on resting players and substituting key stars, whether Benitez had already given up on fourth spot, whether, fearing the sack, he is starting to put his own CV ahead of the club’s long term needs.

And with the final realisation that the club will fall short of its minimum requirement and much further short of last year’s commendable second place finish, there is a sense now that the tide of opinion has well and truly turned against Benitez. Although the squabbling of owners and the constant talk of debt and loans had bought Benitez some time and sympathy, fans are now widely criticising his reign at the club. It remains to be seen how much more time Europa League success would buy him.

Going into April, Liverpool fans were optimistic about their chances, ready to run Spurs and City to the line for the Champions League prize. Sadly, Liverpool appear to have stumbled at the first two fences and are now barely still in the race.

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