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Jan 21, 2010

Anfield remains the epicentre of surprises

So it was all a 'blip' after all and George Gillett clearly knew what he was talking about when he insisted that Rafa Benitez is one of the top five coaches in the world. Or, is it a blip in reverse, a win over rivals for a top four spot that, in reality, has done little other than to have papered over the cracks?

Anfield is certainly the epicentre of a season of surprises, and it was a surprise that Liverpool won at home against Tottenham, one of the teams tipped to end the season with an elusive top four spot. It has been a remarkably unpredictable season.

It was Spurs' best chance to break a 17-year winless run at Anfield against a Liverpool side struggling for confidence and form, but Harry Redknapp's side showed little sign of dismissing that statistic.

Tottenham looked like the nearly team they have proven to be so often. It was frustrating for any Spurs fan to watch a side full of such promise fail to overcome the physiological barrier of winning at Anfield, when a team shorn of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard were there for the taking. In fact, Redknapp's side were caught short, and the Spurs boss was far from amused. Sebastien Bassong didn't have any shorts when called upon to come off the bench and conceded a late penalty, and Spurs 'aspirations to clinch one of those coveted top four spots were dented. Redknapp's side were caught with their trousers down, while Benitez oversaw his team pull their socks up.

Not blessed with fully fit centre halves, captain Ledley King failed to last the course and was taken off, while Jonathan Woodgate remains injured, so there appears every reason to re-sign Younes Kaboul from Portsmouth.

And to compound Spurs fans' misery, bitter rivals Arsenal came back to beat Bolton at the Emirates to top the Premier League. Only a few weeks ago, Chelsea were nailed-on certainties to take the title, in what was at best a two horse race, and now suddenly Arsenal are on top of the pile.

Liverpool seemed doomed to suffer financial meltdown by failing to qualify for the Champions League and despite the embarrassment of going out of the FA Cup to Reading at Anfield, they have gone on a run in the league to take them within a point of Spurs in the race for fourth position.

Calm down, though. I'm afraid I'm sticking to my guns. I still think Spurs will pull themselves together and that Manchester City remain a major threat. Arsenal continue to mesmerise both their own fans and neutrals alike with their superior brand of pass and move football, but the Gunners really don't have the strength in depth to maintain that lofty position, and it might be premature to believe that all is well in the domain of Benitez too.

But let's give the guy some credit, with his back to the wall and suffering endless headlines about his future and speculation about who might replace him, the players have shown an admirable fighting spirit, epitomised by captain Jamie Carragher.

The defender has had one of the worst seasons of his career, but he never stops trying, and set the tone against Spurs with a crunching early tackle and never flinched throughout a tough contest with so much at stake for both sides.

For those who have been calling for his head (myself included), Benitez enjoyed his respite, with the home crowd chanting his name at half time and at the end to make a mockery of some of the Spurs fans sniping "You'll be sacked in the morning".

We all know the American owners cannot afford to sack Benitez and are waiting for either new investment or new owners. A final assessment will be made at the end of the season and will be largely based on whether Benitez can guide the club back into the Champions League.

Benitez has guaranteed everyone that Liverpool will finish in the top four, and this victory, no matter how nervy, will support his claim. Don't believe it though, I certainly don't swallow it. It's been far too traumatic a season and Liverpool could easily fall to a more unlikely opponent.

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