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Jan 20, 2010

Determined Liverpool show signs of revival

Writing Rafa Benitez's Anfield obituary is a perilous business. He has a habit of resuscitating his career, to the irritation of a baying mob and the relief of a crowd whose habitual loyalty towards their manager has been sorely tested. For one who was supposed to be a dead man walking, Benitez is showing renewed signs of health. The unexpected and effusive endorsement of George Gillett began a rare fine day for the Spaniard; defeating Tottenham completed it. One of the top five managers in the world, as the co-owner described him, is not one of the top five bosses in the Premier League, according to the league table. Yet only one point from fourth place, a faltering campaign has shown signs of a revival based more on spirit than skill. Benitez's guarantee of a top-four finish is hardly failsafe, but it may not be utterly misguided. "It was important for everyone here because we knew we had to reduce the gap to stay in the race," he said.

Thrown a curve ball by circumstance, according to Gillett, he has been thrown a lifeline by two goals from Dirk Kuyt and, in part, by two players largely lacking in the attributes Anfield expects. This is not a recognisable Liverpool side. Not with an unwanted full-back on the right wing and a substandard centre-half who was only signed because Benitez couldn't afford anyone better. Yet Sotirios Kyrgiakos scored at Stoke on Saturday and Philipp Degen delivered a display full of effort and endeavour that earned him an unanticipated standing ovation.

"I have said before that the squad is not as bad as people were saying," insisted Benitez. "Today we were playing without six players but the rest of the squad showed character. Everybody was working hard."

Completing a trio of unlikely contributors was Anfield's greatest enigma. Kuyt scored a double to bookend the game but his opener, besides being the first goal Tottenham had conceded in 10-and-a-half hours of football, was notable for featuring the first moment to suggest Alberto Aquilani is not this season's Robbie Keane.

The Italian had become a cause celebre while languishing on the bench or pottering ineffectually around the midfield. Six months into his Liverpool career, this was the first hint of his potential. Shoehorned into the role Steven Gerrard has copyrighted, and Keane once coveted, at Anfield, Aquilani was shifted forward 20 yards.

Instead of strolling around in front of the back four, he was augmenting the attack. A benefit soon became apparent. Kuyt met Jose Reina's punt clear, exchanged a one-two with his newly-found support act and squeezed a shot past Heurelho Gomes from the edge of the area.

Tottenham were aggrieved that Jermain Defoe had a goal disallowed, seemingly for offside, after he dispossessed Jose Reina. "Is he active, was it second phase? I don't know, there's so many rules now," said Harry Redknapp. "I'll probably stay up for a couple of hours reading the rule book. He [referee Howard Webb] didn't know [why it was disallowed], nor did the linesman. They probably phoned a friend." Yet, fraught as it was, frail as Liverpool are and makeshift as their side undoubtedly is, Reina's goal was rarely threatened otherwise. "You'll never get a better opportunity," Redknapp admitted. "They were without Gerrard, without [Fernando] Torres, without [Glen] Johnson, without [Yossi] Benayoun."

Nevertheless, the majority of the clear-cut chances fell Liverpool's way. Kuyt had an effort cleared off the line by Gareth Bale while, from a fine cross by Jamie Carragher, Albert Riera headed against the bar. The last 10 minutes brought a flurry of chances and finally the decisive second. In quick succession, first the substitute David Ngog had a fine effort saved by Gomes, Kuyt volleyed wastefully over and Kyrgiakos was denied by the goalkeeper. Eventually, Sebastien Bassong hacked down Ngog and Kuyt's twice-taken (and twice-converted) penalty eased a tension that threatened to become unbearable. "I am really pleased with the players and the attitude," added Benitez. Indeed, attitude rather than ability brought a result that ranked among their best of the season, though, for much of the second half, a passing move appeared an impossibility. Fluent football was as conspicuous by its absence as flair. This was a team scrapping desperately rather than playing gloriously.

But with more determination than inspiration, Liverpool hung on for grim death. Benitez has plenty of critics, but he is no longer in a critical state.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Jamie Carragher - The Kop's chant has rarely been more apt. They were dreaming of a team of Carraghers and that was what they got. The reluctant right-back led the way, charging up the wing with enthusiasm and flinging himself into challenges and using desire to compensate for other deficiencies. It was not quite vintage Carragher, but a sheer will to win can count for a lot.

LIVERPOOL VERDICT: As at Stoke on Saturday, it is evident from their work rate that the players remain loyal to Benitez. Invention was in short supply but Albert Riera, starting for the first time since December 5th, provided some of the classier touches. Besides Degen and Kyrgiakos, another of Benitez's most-maligned performers, Ngog, made a real impact in his brief cameo while Aquilani looks a valid option as the support striker, especially in Gerrard's absence.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: More was expected of the side occupying fourth place and, while Spurs can cite the importance of the injured Aaron Lennon, this was a dispiriting display. Niko Kranjcar provided some of their scant creativity and an equaliser appeared less likely after he was replaced by Keane.

CAUGHT SHORT: Bassong's introduction was delayed for an unusual reason. "He forgot to put his shorts on," said a bemused Redknapp. "I've not seen that before; it's a new one."

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