Blame it on Benitez

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez looks dejected after the defeat.-AP

Progress in the Champions League might provide a financial windfall but the £40m investment in the summer was made with the intention of bringing the Premier League title to Liverpool. The wait looks likely to last at least another year, writesStuart James.

There is a perception that Rafael Benitez can do little wrong in the eyes of Liverpool supporters but this fixture will long be recalled as the game when the Spaniard not only got barely anything right but also conceded defeat with 20 minutes remaining. The Liverpool manager was disappointed with the officials at key moments but many of the travelling fans must have departed cursing their manager's decision-making, not the referee's.

From the inclusion of Jamie Carragher, who should have picked up a yellow card that would have ruled him out of the crucial game against Manchester United, to the 4-3-3 formation which Peter Crouch later admitted the players were not overly familiar with, to the substitution of Steven Gerrard when Liverpool were two goals behind, so much of what Benitez did was difficult to comprehend.

Benitez said the Marseille fixture was uppermost in his mind when he withdrew Gerrard but the idea that a Premier League match against Reading can be sacrificed will alarm the club's fans as well as George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the American owners. "The tie against Marseille is like a cup final, not like Reading where you can resign yourself to losing three points," said Benitez.

Perhaps the Spaniard is looking at a different league table. Liverpool are four points adrift of third-placed Chelsea and could be nine behind United after their match, with only one game in hand. Progress in the Champions League might provide a financial windfall but the �40m investment in the summer was made with the intention of bringing the Premier League title to Liverpool. The wait looks likely to last at least another year.

It remains to be seen whether Benitez will still be around then. Much may depend on the next six days, with results and performances against Marseille and United sure to have an impact on his talks with Hicks and Gillett at Anfield. The Liverpool manager is keen to step up his plans for the January transfer window but his case for more funds would be severely hampered by a Champions League exit combined with a seemingly forlorn pursuit in the Premier League.

Benitez, recalling the 3-0 victory at St. James' Park recently, when Liverpool also started with a three-prong attack, refused to concede that he had chosen the wrong formation - "We played the same system against Newcastle and everyone was talking about a fantastic team" - but he neglected to mention that the personnel were different. There was no sign that Crouch and Andriy Voronin were comfortable on the flanks here.

"We've haven't worked too much on it, if I'm honest," said Crouch. You did not need to be a regular at Liverpool's Melwood training ground to realise as much. Voronin's sole contribution was an angled drive which the goalkeeper, Marcus Hahnemann, parried at the near post, and Crouch, apart from striking an upright in injury-time with a raking shot, was similarly anonymous. Fernando Torres, playing through the middle, managed to set up Gerrard's neat goal but his own threat was sporadic.

The Spaniard should, however, have earned a penalty in the second half when the error-prone Ibrahima Sonko hauled down the striker as he darted into the area. Benitez, with some justification, was aggrieved about that decision but he was wrong to think that Liverpool should have already had a spot-kick after another incident involving the same players. Sonko clearly made contact with the ball when Torres, cutting inside, tumbled to the ground in the 37th minute.

Replays also showed that Andre Marriner, the referee, was right to give Reading a penalty when Carragher collided with Brynjar Gunnarsson. Stephen Hunt coolly converted, although Liverpool avoided further punishment when Carragher escaped the card that would have brought a suspension. There were few other reprieves as Steve Coppell celebrated his "biggest win" as Reading manager, ending Liverpool's unbeaten Premier League record.

Kevin Doyle, getting the slightest of touches on Nicky Shorey's inswinging free-kick, scored Reading's second before James Harper converted a wonderful solo goal, the midfielder outpacing John Arne Riise and going round Jose Reina to tap into an empty net. Gerrard, who between those two goals had hit the crossbar with a wonderful 30-yard shot, departed four minutes later as Benitez sought to "protect" his talisman. From that moment the game was over.