Rafa Benitez. Mad or masterful? There will be divided opinions after Liverpool's last-gasp 3-2 win at Portsmouth on Saturday night. With his captain Steven Gerrard out injured, the Reds manager started with five at the back, and started with Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt and Fernando Torres on the bench, and David Ngog and Ryan Babel up front.
It seemed crazy or confident; perhaps a defiant message to the critics that he will continue to do things his way regardless of what is said or written abut him. At 2-1 down with five minutes to go and another blow to his side's floundering title hopes ensuing, his gamble looked to have backfired badly. But super subs Kuyt and then Torres, with a powerful close-range header, came to the rescue and made Benitez appear a tactical genius.
Kuyt said: "Everyone wants to play, but the manager makes the decisions. He showed once again he was right." A smile from the Spaniard at the end of the game and, no doubt, a sigh of relief. The pressure on him would have risen considerably had Liverpool faltered against a Portsmouth side battling for their Premier League lives. He claimed his big names were tired after the midweek extra-time FA Cup defeat to Everton, but with two weeks before their next league game against Manchester City, surely they were worth a risk?
Ngog is not ready to lead the line yet, no matter how much Benitez tries to justify his decision to choose the French youngster ahead of the departed Robbie Keane. With a new shape at the back, they dithered defensively. But Fabio Aurelio, who scored Liverpool's first goal, said the victory will spur them in the battle for the championship. "To win a game like this will help us for the rest of the season to keep fighting right until the end," he said.
"We have a winning mentality and it gives us a lot of confidence. We will keep fighting hard and keep the pressure on Manchester United." To do that Benitez will be hoping Torres and his teammates avoid injury in the forthcoming midweek internationals. But he added: "The team's mentality is very good and confidence is high, and these things will be very important for the rest of the season." Tony Adams may not see out the season, though, as Portsmouth made it nine games without a win as poor defending negated second half goals from David Nugent and Hermann Hreidarsson.
Adams believes he is still the right man for the manager's job and said: "It's hard to take, but you have to be constructive. We've got to play all the sides around us [at the bottom] so it's still in our hands." firstname.lastname@example.org