STOKE // If anyone was in any doubt about how far the mighty Liverpool have fallen then a DVD of this 1-1 draw against a purely functional Stoke side should provide final and incontrovertible evidence of the fact. Robert Huth's 90th-minute equaliser for the home team, sliding in at the far post from a corner routine that was poorly defended, intensifies the pressure on the manager Rafa Benitez, who was already facing calls for him to quit amid persistent rumours the club are searching for a replacement.
It was not just the way Liverpool threw away victory that summed up Benitez's problems, it was the overall spectacle of his nervous side, severely lacking in quality, being made to scrap so blindly in a match that did the Premier League little credit. Liverpool fans still sang their songs about five European Cups and cheered as loud as ever when the defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos bundled home an opening goal in the 57th minute. But memories of the glory days are fading faster than the snow that covered England until yesterday and on this showing it is likely to be a long, long time until they return.
True, Benitez can rightly claim his badly-depleted side, missing the injured Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Yossi Benayoun, gave everything for the cause - a fact which should be enough to ensure the stoic Spaniard remains in charge despite the crisis. But one look at the Liverpool teamsheet was enough to depress any fan hoping to see their team bring back memories of days gone by. In truth there was not a single player out there to excite the senses or inspire enthusiasm - not when Liverpool fielded David Ngog on his own up front and an uninspiring midfield five of Dirk Kuyt, Lucas, Javier Mascherano, Fabio Aurelio and Philipp Degen.
Liverpool can rightly say they should have had a penalty early on - when Lucas was bizarrely booked for diving when brought down blatantly by Danny Higginbotham - but the remainder of the match was scrappy, uninspiring and difficult to watch. The visitors took the lead just before the hour when an Aurelio free-kick was bundled in by Kyrgiakos but Stoke eventually woke up, bombarding the Liverpool defence with high balls before Higgin-botham flicked on a corner and Huth stabbed home at the far post near to the end.
There was still time for Kuyt to head against the post - with Lucas claiming another penalty as his shirt was pulled in the same move - but you could sense the disillusionment and frustration in the Liverpool camp as they trooped off the field. "We did so well and should have had two penalties, both very clear. So we could have won and we have to be disappointed to drop two points," said Benitez, who opted to come out in battling mood.
"Sometimes things go against you and the only thing you can do is keep working hard. The most important thing is the players tried from the beginning to the end. "We had some players out today so the main thing was to show some character - and the players were fantastic, they worked very, very hard. The fans appreciated this and supported the team so I'm really pleased for the performance." It is hard to argue against Benitez when he is in that kind of mood and perhaps this will be a stepping stone for Liverpool to slowly rescue their season. But it is also clear the problems at the club lie very deep indeed, even if the Spaniard was quick to deny rumours he has fallen out with his captain Gerrard.
"Everything is fine," he stressed. "Gerrard was here today supporting the team and you can see the response of the team was fantastic." Whether the response of Benitez's critics and Liverpool's fans across the world will be similarly enthusiastic is hard to imagine. There could still be tough times ahead. firstname.lastname@example.org