PORTSMOUTH // The Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez appears to be feeling the strain after his side's already-crumbling season began to disintegrate further following a shock 2-0 defeat at bottom side Portsmouth. Tremendous goals from Nadir Belhadj and Frederic Piquionne were enough to earn Portsmouth, revitalised under the new regime of manager Avram Grant and owner Ali al Faraj, a victory that gives Fratton Park fans real hope of Premier League survival.
But for Liverpool, who also saw the midfielder Javier Mascherano sent off and injured in a terrible first-half challenge on Tal Ben Haim, things are heading in the opposite direction. This was their seventh league defeat of a season in which the focus has already had to shift from dreams of winning the title to a desperate struggle to stay in touch with the top four. In fact Liverpool, also out of the Champions League, have won just four of their last 17 matches in all competitions, so no wonder the knives are now out for Benitez. The Spaniard looked drained and on edge at Fratton Park and did himself few favours in the post-match press conference with a bizarre performance that had journalists scratching their heads.
His answers were short and terse and when asked about the game he constantly repeated the same ironic phrase, despite first insisting Mascherano's red card was unfair. Was it a sending off? "The referee was perfect, he didn't make any mistake." Is Mascherano OK? "He is injured but again I say the referee he didn't make any mistakes." I don't understand, you say the referee made no mistakes? "No, he was perfect. Perfect." But he made a mistake with the sending-off you said? "Yes, perfect."
Why do you say it's not a sending off: "I have seen the replay. But anyway, perfect." Was Fernando Torres lucky to escape with a yellow card for elbowing an opponent? "The referee was perfect." Benitez's responses did little to alter the opinion of many onlookers that he is losing grip on his job at Anfield after five years in charge. Liverpool were second best for most of the match and were behind even before Mascherano lunged into a vicious and uncontrolled challenge on Ben Haim after 43 minutes, digging one foot into his opponent's groin and clattering him with an outstretched arm.
Pompey's opening goal had come nine minutes earlier; Belhadj lashing home a stunning shot at Pepe Reina's near post after the Liverpool goalkeeper had saved an effort from Kevin-Prince Boateng.If Liverpool were below par in the first half they were woeful after the break as Portsmouth dominated, with midfielders Michael Brown and Jamie O'Hara outstanding. Piquionne worked tirelessly for Grant's side, who have now taken seven points from the last four games, and got his reward with an impressive strike after 82 minutes.
Excellent work by Boateng on the right saw him cross for Piquionne to flick the ball up, turn his marker and drive home. It was no more than Portsmouth deserved because Liverpool, with Steven Gerrard bizarrely deployed deep as Mascherano's replacement, contributed little to the game. As for Grant, he was delighted with his team, saying: "We played good and scored two goals and I'm very pleased. It's important that we took the points and closed the gap on the teams outside of the relegation zone. We are improving our performance game by game."
The only distraction for the Israeli is the continuing confusion off the pitch where financial problems have dogged the club, but he is confident Portsmouth's new owners will give him money to spend in the January transfer window. "I know they are doing their best so that things will be OK and I am positive by nature," he said. "We need it to be OK off the pitch because then it is easier to fight on the pitch. We will have a long battle until the end of the season and I am positive we can make the team stronger in January."