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Oct 17, 2009

No excuses from deflated Benitez

Rafael Benitez's critics have been scenting his Spanish blood for some weeks now and their knives will come out in earnest after this latest defeat.

• Sunderland 1-0 Liverpool
• Premier League Gallery

It needed one of the most extraordinary goals in Premier League history to plunge Benitez into his first full scale crisis as Liverpool manager as a stray beach ball diverted Darren Bent's fifth minute shot past Pepe Reina to hand Sunderland a famous victory, but the mood in the press box as the final whistle blew suggested this story had only just begun.

With George Gillett, one of Liverpool's outspoken American owners, again questioning Benitez's ability in the media just a few days ago, a fourth Premier League defeat in mid-October was not the response he was looking for and yet Liverpool could have few arguments on a day when Sunderland fully deserved their victory.

To his credit, a downbeat Benitez refused to blame the offending balloon for his side's demise as he accepted his fate with grace. "We conceded a goal too early and the chances we had in the game were not as clear as would have wanted," he admitted.

"Our final ball was not good enough and we have to try and get better. I cannot fault the effort and commitment of my team, yet the quality was not always there. We obviously had some problems today with the injuries, but this cannot be an excuse.

"It is very disappointing to lose again, but I don't think the title is gone for us already. Chelsea lost once more today and it feels like the teams at the top of the table will be able to concede more points this season compared to last year."

He has to try and provide a positive spin, but with inspirational skipper Steven Gerrard and striker supreme Fernando Torres out injured, the lack of depth in Benitez's squad was exposed once again.

On this occasion, he was forced to dip into his reserve team to plug a few holes, with youngster Jay Spearing thrown into the mix on a day when the Liverpool midfield looked flimsy from the off. Many Liverpool fans have called for young Spearing to get his first team chance, yet tossing a 20-year-old kid into a tough away game like this was always likely to test him to the full.

Spearing was hardly helped by the presence of the consistently ineffective Lucas alongside him in an experimental 3-4-3 formation that included Daniel Agger for the first time this season.

When they saw that team sheet, Sunderland instantly eyed up a famous scalp and with Spearing looking nervous in the opening exchanges, it allowed Sunderland winger and playmaker Andy Reid to confirm his new slim-line physique is allowing his talent to take centre stage in the Premier League on a consistent basis.

Only the affable Dubliner can explain why he was carrying around so much additional weight in the last few years, but there can be little doubt that he is a talent to be reckoned with now that he has trimmed his waistline to a more suitable level.

Reid was creator in chief for Bent's bizarre opener and his energy levels rarely dipped in the first half as he buzzed around Liverpool and gave them plenty to think about with his fine set-piece delivery. Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni seems determined to ignore his claims for a recall to his World Cup squad, but such belligerence seems more than a little foolish after witnessing this latest master class.

In fact, a player of his creative ilk was just what Liverpool could have done with as the story of this game was written as for all their effort and commitment, a lack of class was something that cost Liverpool in the end.

Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt did their best to bring Liverpool back into contention and they had a chance to snatch something from the game, but the most likely scorers of the second goal throughout the first half always looked to be Bruce's Sunderland.

Kenwyne Jones and Bent were a threat throughout and when the latter rounded Reina after 54 minutes, a second Sunderland goal seemed inevitable only for the Liverpool keeper to get back to cut down the target and make the save from the shot that followed.

Bent then hit the woodwork as he tried to capitalise onto a lapse in the Liverpool defence and he should have done better after rounding the keeper once more. His determination to take the shot with his favoured right foot cost him dear.

With Benitez claiming Sunderland were indulging in time-wasting as the second half rumbled along, it needed the fourth official to keep the rival managers apart as tempers frayed on the touchline and the Liverpool manager got his way as SEVEN minutes of time was added on at the end.

For all Liverpool's belated bluster, they could not force the equaliser and Bruce was convinced his men had earned their victory. "I hope the manner of our goal does not become the main talking point because we fully deserved to win this game," said the Black Cats boss. "I'm sure Darren's winner will be replayed time and again in quizzes and on football blooper shows, but there was only one side who deserved the three points from this game .

"We knew it was a good time to get Liverpool so soon after the international break because their key players had matches all over the world last week, but we produced a great performance and capitalised on the little bit of luck that came our way."

So Benitez now has a Premier League record for this campaign that reads played nine, lost four. Statistics like that may be considered unacceptable for many a manager in his position as Liverpool's title dream appears to be over already.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Andy Reid
A constant source of energy and creativity, Reid's long passing and set-play delivery made him a menace all afternoon. After his impressive display against Manchester United at Old Trafford a couple of weeks back, this performance confirmed his revival is complete.

STADIUM OF DELIGHT: This venue often lacks a little atmosphere amid a plethora of unfilled seats, but Sunderland's home was bristling with excitement for this fixture and the bulk of the crowd went home very happy.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: It is hard to find too many positives from a fourth league defeat when it arrives in mid-October and Benitez's decision to expose young Jay Spearing to a game of this intensity backfired. Mascherano replaced him mid-way through the second half.

SUNDERLAND VERDICT: Steve Bruce has done a fine job in transforming this bunch of nearly men into a team capable of testing the very best in the Premier League. A top eight finish beckons and they may even be able to aim for more.

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