LIVERPOOL // Where Liverpool are concerned, some statements tend to go unchallenged. The oft-voiced criticism is that, given the reliance on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, they are a two-man team. It is repeated with similar frequency that Liverpool have very little in reserve beyond Rafa Benitez's preferred 11.
Yet Yossi Benayoun is providing a rebuttal of both theories. A tap-in against Sunderland is scarcely comparable to his headed winner away at Real Madrid, but it was further evidence of his impact. Had Gerrard been fit enough to start at the Bernabeu, the probability is that the Israeli would have been relegated to the bench, yet he is a rare understudy who is excelling. "I was lucky for the goal," he said. "But I had a feeling it would come to me." His modesty was misplaced. While some of Benitez's squad players, such as Andrea Dossena, Lucas Leiva and Ryan Babel, have either failed to impress or regressed, Benayoun's influence has mushroomed.
His cameo against Chelsea was integral in transforming a draw into a victory and against Sunderland, his intelligent movement permitted Gerrard to supply David Ngog for the opener, the teenager's maiden Premier League goal. Benitez, who had cited the Frenchman's emergence among the reasons for selling Robbie Keane, praised his young striker: "He has qualities, he is a young player who has just arrived. He has a great future here."
The significance of a 2-0 victory extended beyond preserving Liverpool's slim title hopes. Morale had suffered after the setback at Middlesbrough and this was a restorative occasion. As Javier Mascherano said: "We were really disappointed with the result at Middlesbrough. We are not as close to Man United as we would like to be but we have to carry on fighting to see what happens." Much of the focus, however, remained on Real, though this could scarcely be regarded as a dress rehearsal. With the untried Ngog in attack and Mascherano operating, albeit energetically and effectively, as an emergency right-back, it would have been of limited use to any scouts from the Spanish club.
It was a novel experience for the Argentinian. "Everyone knows that I am a central midfielder," he said. "Sometimes I have played on the right-hand side for the national team but never before at right-back." Benayoun and Mascherano formed an unexpectedly impressive alliance on the right flank. The two-man team tag was not applied with them in mind, but they troubled Sunderland most. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org