Liverpool struggle against West Ham with Benteke the culprit again
Liverpool huffed and puffed but lacked guile against a cautious, out-of-sorts West Ham side in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday.
The home side might reflect on this as an opportunity missed. Neither team did enough to win in a bizarrely listless match, though the visitors will claim early injuries damaged their game plan, whatever that was.
The Reds can take heart from one or two performances by their second-choice players, particularly Cameron Brannagan, who came closest to scoring in the first half, with a fierce shot that West Ham goalkeeper Darren Randolph was equal to.
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp expressly didn't want a replay, which begs the question: Why did he not make his attacking substitutions earlier?
As for Christian Benteke, it was a case of more of the same: nothing.
Player ratings (1-10, with 10 the best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK Simon Mignolet, 5 -- He was skittish all evening, especially with his kicking, which saw him at his dithering worst at times. For such an experienced professional, he still hasn't realized how his reluctance to clear the ball puts the defender he passes to at risk. One late charge out to try to catch a long West Ham throw was poor and nearly lost Liverpool the game. This was a night to forget.
DF Nathaniel Clyne, 7 -- He returned from injury as if he hadn't been away. He was steady and reliable in the first half, and there was more from him coming forward early in the second, but even that contribution fizzled as the home side became more ragged.
DF Steven Caulker, 7 -- Not under much pressure in his full debut, he dealt with everything securely in a no-nonsense performance. He was lucky to not give a penalty away for a handball, but that would have been cruel, as the away side rarely threatened. He did provide some aerial security that Klopp felt had been lacking in Liverpool's game.
DF Dejan Lovren, 7 -- He was solid enough in a largely untroubled evening, with one or two timely interventions. A poor foul on Victor Moses earned him a yellow card, but it was one of those occasions when a defender takes one for the team.
DF Brad Smith, 6 -- This was a nervy performance from the Australian, who showed better form going forward. Whether it was a rise in opposition stature or a sense he might make this position his own in the light of Alberto Moreno's poor recent displays, Smith got caught once or twice in the first half. It was a better second half, though, with West Ham settling for a draw might have influenced that.
MF Cameron Brannagan, 8 -- He showed good quality throughout, including a marked improvement in set-piece delivery from that of James Milner's. He blasted a fine left foot shot, which almost gave Liverpool the lead in the first half. He understandably faded a little but still played his part in the pressing game that has become Klopp's trademark. This was easily his best performance for Liverpool so far.
MF Joe Allen, 6 -- Operating mostly on the left, the captain on the night kept his side going by leading through example. He shot well over on the hour mark, when it looked an easier task to at least get it on target. He has played well recently, but this was not one of his better games.
MF Kevin Stewart, 7 -- He was busy enough and did all defensive things well, apart from one or two rash challenges near the box. Given Liverpool's season-long weakness at free kicks, that could have proven costly. He kept going to the final whistle.
MF Jordon Ibe, 5 -- As one of the more "senior" players -- the term used loosely for a 20-year-old -- this was disappointing. He featured in one tasty give-and-go with Joao Teixeira in the first half and set up Benteke for a good chance in the second. However, he was mostly untidy and almost looked disinterested. He didn't show enough on a night when a lot of responsibility was placed on his shoulders. He was replaced on 80 minutes, and it might have been a lot earlier.
MF Joao Teixeira, 7 -- With more trickery and lots of hard work, he perhaps could have scored in the second half, but he wasn't given the ball when free in the penalty area, and on another occasion, he shot tamely at the goalkeeper. Bizarrely replaced by Jose Enrique at the very end, he was one of the few players who can be proud of his overall contribution.
FW Christian Benteke, 4 -- This is now taking on the look of a standoff between player and manager. The Belgian simply does not commit himself fully on such occasions, which sparks impatience in the crowd. If he really feels he deserves a regular start in the team, he is going about it the wrong way. Although any debate over the service he receives will continue, Benteke is not meeting his teammates or manager even remotely halfway.
FW Sheyi Ojo, N/R -- He possibly should have come on for Ibe earlier, and therefore, he failed to contribute anything more than one or two interesting touches.
FW Jerome Sinclair, N/R -- He was another strangely late arrival, as the game was already meandering toward a draw, and the wantaway striker wasn't likely to affect that.
DF Jose Enrique, N/R -- It is a blessing that ratings aren't given for late substitutions. His first touch was arguably the worst free kick seen in England all season, which is some achievement. Was he supposed to cover defensively while Caulker was thrown forward? No one will know, as the game petered out when he came on.
Steven Kelly writes about Liverpool for ESPN FC and has a weekly Liverpool column for The Irish Examiner. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.