Benitez: No problems with strikers

Rafael Benitez was inevitably asked by reporters why he had left Djibril Cisse back in the North West rather than taking him with the rest of the squad over to Sunderland for last nights Premiership match. With Cisse left behind, Peter Crouch, Luis Garcia and Fernando Morientes started the game, with Harry Kewell and Florent Sinama-Pongolle chosen as the two attacking options on the bench. Benitez says that this meant there was no need to include Cisse in the travelling party.

Cisse had made a public show of disapproval on Saturday after being brought off against Manchester City six minutes after the break. Rafa said that once he’d explained his reasons to the Frenchman he accepted the situation and had been training normally. Rafa said that the size of his squad meant he had an opportunity to give players recovery time between games: “We have a big squad and a lot of games – you need to use the players that you have.”

Cisse was probably fresher after Saturday’s game than anyone else who started, being that he only played 51 minutes, but Rafa denied there was any disciplinary reasoning behind the decision. When he was asked if Cisse was missing because of his complaints at the weekend he said: “No. Always I say the same – when a player is playing, then other players cannot play. He was not playing because Crouch and Morientes were playing. There is no problem, no reason, only a big squad and a lot of games.”

Liverpool’s 2-0 victory was accomplished with goals from Garcia and captain Steven Gerrard, with both goals set up by Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso. The first goal came from Alonso’s clever through-ball, taken on and calmly slotted home by Luis Garcia on 31 minutes. Then in stoppage time at the end of the first half it was Steven Gerrard benefiting from Alonso excellent abilities as he also finished well past Ben Alnwick.

In the second-half Liverpool’s hopes of increasing their lead were decreased when Momo Sissoko was sent off for a second bookable offence. Sissoko had been warned already by the referee about his tackling, and in the end the sending off was inevitable. Sunderland couldn’t take advantage of the extra man, and could have gone even further behind on 74 minutes when John Arne Riise ran the full length of the field before rattling the crossbar with one of his trademark thunderous shots.

Again there was no goal for Crouch who was denied by a great save from Alnwick, and then what should have been a penalty when Steve Caldwell’s ill-timed lunge was ignored by referee Phil Dowd. Reds boss Benitez felt it should have been a penalty, saying: “I thought it was a goal and then after a penalty, but it was bad luck for him.”

Bad luck has been the biggest factor in the way of Crouch getting a goal. How many strikers have broken their goal droughts with deflected mis-kicks or blunders fro opposing keepers? For Crouch everything seems to be just going against him getting that goal, but Rafa is still, understandably, happy with Crouch: “He is playing well and he had an opportunity with a penalty and the referee did not see it. The referee decided it was not a penalty. He’s the only one in the stadium who did not see the penalty. After some games when people start talking and talking, I said to him ‘forget it, forget all the things people say about scoring, just try to play as well as you are playing now’”.

Crouch is a handful for opposition defenders, and no slouch when it comes to helping out in his own box during set-pieces. His work rate and attitude make him one of Rafa’s most important players but without a goal you feel Rafa will be repeating the same mantra after every game. He’s still doing a lot for the team, as he was weeks ago when Rafa was first asked about the lack of goals. Again, Rafa said: “For us, he is a very, very important player because we have a lot of options now that last season we didn’t have. He can keep the ball, head the ball and then we have always a second option that we did not have last season.”

Rafa Benitez had a lot of sympathy before the game for his opposite number Mick McCarthy, and on the showing that Sunderland gave last night it’s difficult to see why they are struggling quite so much. Like Crouch it seems Sunderland are playing well in so many ways but just aren’t getting that touch of luck that will bring them some self-confidence to change things round. With every game they lose they make their task harder, but with a little bit of luck they could maybe start a slow climb away from that bottom-of-the-table position. McCarthy felt his players pretty much did all they could for him and he was pleased with the way they handled what he felt was a world-class side: “In terms of work-rate and effort, endeavour and trying to play today, I’ve got no qualms or arguments with the lads at all. If you look at the two teams out on the pitch, it’s not really a fair fight. But what I would admire my players for is having the fight and putting it up to them today and having a go at it.”

And now maybe there’s a chink of light for Sunderland at the end of that long tunnel they’ve been in, because they are starting to fight. Fighting performances have made the difference between staying up and going down in recent Premiership years, and McCarthy is pleased to see it in his team: “For that, I admire them. From Saturday to today, it was much-improved in terms of those things in the game.”