Saturday, August 29, 2009

Benitez and O'Neill on the offensive


Rafael Benitez marched briskly through Anfield's main entrance nearly two hours after defeat to Aston Villa and moved to reassure a conce moved to reassure a concerned Liverpool supporter with the words: "We keep going."

Early days to be delivering such a message - but there is no doubt unease is in the air at Anfield as Liverpool's second loss in their opening three league games ensured they equalled their total for the whole of last season.

Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill, himself subjected to the first undercurrent of questioning about his tenure before this win, complained that it was "staggering" that prophecies were being made about a team's fate on the basis of one or two games.

And there is no reason for Liverpool to be discounted as Premier League title contenders on the basis of what can reasonably be described as undistinguished opening fortnight.

No-one, however, can escape from the reality that this has not been the start Benitez or Liverpool planned and it was reflected in the mood of deflation as the manager pointed an accusing finger at his senior professionals.

Benitez's (pictured below, left) body language was downbeat as he repeated the complaints he made about Liverpool in their defeat at Spurs - too careless in possession, lacking in precision. All words that once again drew attention to the Xabi Alonso-sized hole in Liverpool's team that Alberto Aquilani will be expected to fill when fit.

O'Neill may have been deep in contemplation, and he did acknowledge Villa's fans later, but his obvious disquiet later suggested otherwise.

I asked O'Neill whether he was hurt by the criticism and he said: "We have won at Anfield and the players were simply brilliant.

"I said at the time if you are booed off at the end of the game when you have not played well and you deserve that then fine, but I was disconcerted by it at half-time against Wigan. I didn't hear Liverpool being booed off at half-time when they were two goals down here."

Point made and he had one. It is a big season for O'Neill, his fourth at Villa and one when he needs to at least make close acquaintance with silverware, but to deliver a resounding raspberry in the general direction of such a manager and his team 45 minutes into a new season is nonsensical.

O'Neill will be delighted that after two defeats there were signs on show at Anfield that he has foundations in place, with Stewart Downing to come later in the season - although he will need to fill his squad out inside the next seven days for battles ahead.

Villa fit the traditional O'Neill template of pace on the flanks and power at the back. He must now ensure they do not run out of steam, as they did so spectacularly last season.

Expectations are even higher at Anfield and Benitez knows every defeat will bring more scrutiny as Liverpool attempt to end a 20-year wait for the title in a season when many pundits believe they have the team to achieve it.

Benitez will simply hope this is a false start as opposed to Liverpool failing to cope with the heightened expectations and pressure. It was a performance, however, with ominous undertones.

Liverpool's manager was unhappy. Aston Villa's manager was only marginally happier. And yet there was no doubt who departed Anfield the more contented man.


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