Portsmouth 2 Liverpool 0
Published 21/12/2009 | 01:21
As he sought to explain Liverpool's eighth defeat in 17 matches, Rafael Benitez looked like a man who has run out of ideas and excuses.
He seized upon the "game-changing" dismissal of Javier Mascherano for a crude challenge on Tal Ben Haim shortly before the break. But Liverpool were already behind, against a Portsmouth team which had not played particularly well.
That was partly because Portsmouth had concentrated on stopping Liverpool. The major difference in their approach since Avram Grant replaced Paul Hart is that they pay greater attention to negating their opponents before trying to play their own, often pleasing football.
In Liverpool's case that meant stopping Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson. Ben Haim, with assistance from Younes Kaboul, niggled at Torres, Michael Brown sat on Gerrard, and in a preview of a possible World Cup encounter in Cape Town, Johnson was given the quick, if flighty, Nadir Belhadj to contend with.
In a worrying portent for Fabio Capello, the Algerian shaded the contest, and not just because he scored a stunning goal from Johnson's unfortunate clearance. "Johnson is the best full-back at going forward and creating things," said Grant, "but Belhadj is quick to go behind and score or give assists."
Meanwhile Gerrard, aside from a twice deflected shot that was superbly saved by Asmir Begovic, was quiet; and Torres, though showing flashes of his class, was sidetracked into pursuing vendettas with Brown and Ben Haim.
With those three stymied and Yossi Benayoun on the bench, Liverpool's creative threat was curtailed. "We spoke about a few tactical things about Liverpool," said Grant, "everybody knows that you need to close down a few Liverpool players, so we paid attention to [those like] Torres."
For a club of Liverpool's ambitions it was too easy. "In football sometimes you make things easy, and sometimes you make things difficult for yourselves," said Grant. Benitez is certainly making life difficult for himself when his transfer record is considered (Andrea Dossena? £7m?) and there must be doubts about how long he will remain at the helm if the club's listlessness is not arrested. Increasingly, it seems the victories over Manchester United and local rivals Everton are, rather than something to be celebrated, a damning indictment of the team's inability to motivate themselves against less significant opponents.
Benitez insisted he was not worried about his job, only the next match. That is Wolves at home on Saturday, followed by a trip to Aston Villa, currently eight points clear of Liverpool in the fourth and final Champions League qualifying place. Portsmouth defender Steve Finnan, who played more than 200 matches for Liverpool before leaving last year, admitted: "I am a bit surprised at what has gone on there so far this season. I thought they would push on, but that hasn't happened."
He added: "I don't know what the problems are. It is a bit of a mystery, because they have top players. But I still regard Liverpool as a top-four team, and think they will finish in the top four." So does Benitez, but the number of fellow believers is dwindling.
Portsmouth (4-1-4-1): Begovic; Finnan, Kaboul, Ben-Haim, Hreidarsson; Brown; Boateng (Mullins, 89), Yebda, O'Hara, Belhadj; Piquionne (Kanu, 90). Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Utaka, Hughes, Dindane, Wilson.
Liverpool (4-2-3-1): Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua (Aurelio, 67); Mascherano, Lucas (Spearing, 87); Kuyt, Gerrard, Dossena (Benayoun, 52); Torres. Substitutes not used: Cavalieri (gk) Babel, Ngog, Skrtel.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Portsmouth Yebda, Piquionne. Liverpool Lucas, Torres, Johnson.
Sent off: Mascherano.
Man of the match: Brown.