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By ESPN Staff

Benitez winning Anfield popularity contest

The special relationship is no more. The breakdown in Anglo-American relations, due to irreconcilable differences, appears to have been cemented. Javier Mascherano may be a present from Tom Hicks and George Gillett to mark their first anniversary at Anfield, but it has not won them back their place in the affections of the Anfield crowd, and nor will it ever.

A core of stalwarts from the Kop remained behind after the game to protest against the Americans, demonstrating their feelings have not changed. Their insistence that 'Liverpool Football Club, it's in the wrong hands' was first aired during the draw with Aston Villa. Their opinion remains the same. Should Hicks and Gillett take their advice and 'get out of our club', one problem will be alleviated, but others remain.

David Moyes, with his momentary echo of Tony Blair, may have bestowed the nickname 'the people's club' on Everton, but Liverpool are in no doubt they merit that tag. Hence the suggestion that 100,000 supporters can band together to buy the club.

Democracy is a great idea in principle, but often impractical, especially in a region that is not the wealthiest and when the existing owners have an interest in maximising their profits.

And even were they able to organise a takeover with instant effect, some issues would outlive the Hicks-Gillett regime. At a club where there is an element of déjà vu, they would involve stuttering home form, Rafa Benitez's principles and position, as well as Peter Crouch.

Granted a rare start, Crouch obliged with just his second league goal to transform a dreadful performance into a convincing win. 'He deserves to be in the national team,' said Benitez mischievously, when asked if the lesser-spotted Crouch merits a place in the Liverpool side.

He probably does, if only because the options are so unappealing. Andriy Voronin is both injured and underachieving and Dirk Kuyt has an extended crisis of confidence. Ryan Babel would provide a more mobile and imaginative option to partner Fernando Torres but, as was remarked when the Dutchman looked bemused at the dissenting fans, there is much he does not understand.

And this marked perhaps the first occasion when Crouch suggested he could combine profitably with Torres. After he had broken the deadlock by heading in a cross from the makeshift right-back Jamie Carragher - 'he's a good defender but maybe I didn't know he was so good as a winger,' quipped Benitez - they matched one another volley for volley.

Craig Gordon repelled both superbly and Phil Bardsley cleared a Crouch header off his line before the Englishman's flick-on released the Spaniard to convert his 18th goal of the season with trademark assurance.

A third goal came from Steven Gerrard from 12 yards after Nyron Nosworthy tripped the Liverpool skipper. Roy Keane, however, was more concerned by the penalties Rob Styles did not award Sunderland. One appeal, when Carragher handled Daryl Murphy's shot, was particularly strong. But the Sunderland manager said: 'I don't think we were ever going to get a penalty today. Rob refereed the game against Chelsea here and he was demoted because of it [the spot kick given against Steve Finnan]. We were never going to get a penalty today, never.'

And without one, the scoreline flattered Liverpool. The result may appear convincing, but the performance was not. Although Benitez's men recorded a belated first Premier League win of 2008, a disjointed team turned in an incoherent display that, in turn, was the consequence of a mixed season.

The sight of Lucas Leiva on the left wing was an indication of the failings of John Arne Riise and Harry Kewell. Carragher's presence on the right of defence reflected badly on Finnan. And while Crouch scored, the rest of Liverpool's lesser lights did little to change the impression that they depend entirely on Torres and Gerrard for inspiration.

Benitez said: 'It was really important for us. Confidence was low, but scoring three goals and a clean sheet, there are a lot of positive things.' That is debateable. Victory enabled Liverpool to leap two places to fifth, but in the quest for fourth, beating the side with the worst away record in the Premier League was hardly an indication of a change of fortune.

Hicks and Gillett may concur. They anticipated more, but undermining Benitez has strengthened his position in the Kop's affections. Their protests continue to be directed at the Americans, and this is a popularity contest Benitez is winning.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Fernando Torres - Another high-class performance from the Spaniard. Starved of service for the most part, he almost conjured a contender for goal of the season with a wonderful volley and he took his 18th goal of the season clinically.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: Another major overhaul beckons in the summer. Benitez requires at least one striker, one winger and one defender, and perhaps more in all departments, if Liverpool are to mount a challenge. And defeat at West Ham seems to have made selecting the strongest side still tougher. Xabi Alonso, for instance, was not even in the 16, while Yossi Benayoun, who made a difference when introduced, should surely start.

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: For 55 minutes, Manchester United reserves were comfortable as they held Liverpool with the Old Trafford alumni Jonny Evans and Phil Bardsley faring well either side of Nosworthy. Then Sunderland's limitations were exposed.

As Keane said: 'We knew the first 10 or 15 minutes of the second half was going to be crucial and so it proved. We had one or two half-chances and claims for a penalty, but we need to do more than that. We lacked a bit of quality in the final third.' They do and with only two away points all season, survival depends entirely upon their home form.

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