Recovering nicely

RAFA Benitez has threatened to consult his doctor if Liverpool keep on scaring him witless. If they are going to win the title, they’re certainly doing it the hard way.

Benitez’s side are unbeaten after eight Premier League matches. But they had needed to come from behind to win four of those matches. In two of those comeback victories, the winner has come in stoppage time. Watching Liverpool is not for the faint-hearted.

“Can we continue coming from behind like this? I will talk to my doctor and we will see,” Benitez said after his side’s 3-2 win over Wigan, a match in which they were twice behind. He may only have been half-joking.

It was a privilege to be at Anfield yesterday to see Liverpool and Wigan battle it out in a cracking match. I’m just glad I wasn’t supporting either team, because I don’t think my nerves could have taken it.

I always enjoy going to Anfield. It’s far too small for a club of Liverpool’s ambitions, and they need to get a new stadium built in Stanley Park as soon as the credit crunch will allow. But there’s an aura about Anfield that will be impossible to replace when they do move.

As more clubs move to bigger homes, we’re going to lose more of these great old football grounds in the coming years. I understand why it has to happen, but it will still be a shame.

The atmosphere at Anfield yesterday played as big a part in the game as the two teams, who were both going for the win.

It was important for Liverpool to prove they can survive with Fernando Torres, who increasingly gives the impression that his right hamstring is made of paper. He tore it against Aston Villa in August, he tore it while playing for Spain in midweek. He has suffered four hamstring injuries in the last 18 months. He could yet turn out to be one of Liverpool’s all-time greats, but he isn’t going to play every week.

Before yesterday, though, he had scored five of Liverpool’s nine Premier League goals. Dirk Kuyt and Steven Gerrard had managed one each; Robbie Keane none. Time for someone else to show they can hit the target.

In the first half yesterday, that someone was wearing a Wigan shirt. Amr Zaki has apparently been nursing his way through a calf injury for the last month. I dread to think how good he will be when he’s fully fit.

Zaki scored two very different goals. His first was a poacher’s effort, robbing a dawdling Dan Agger on the edge of the box to drive past Pepe Reina. His second was an incredible acrobatic scissors kick which had even the Liverpool fans applauding. They know class when they see it.

In between Kuyt had smashed in a Liverpool equaliser, but at half-time, Wigan looked a good bet to record their first-ever victory over the Merseysiders.

And they probably would have done but for a crazy five minutes for Antonio Valencia. The midfielder was, perhaps harshly, booked for encroachment at a Gerrard free kick with 20 minutes to go. At the time, hardly anyone noticed Alan Wiley’s flash of yellow.

But when Valencia then piled in with a reckless challenge on Xabi Alonso five minutes later, he left Wigan hanging on a man short against a team who specialise in late comebacks. It’s not been a good week for Valencia, sent off playing for Ecuador against Chile in a World Cup qualifier last Sunday too.

Steve Bruce would claim after the match that his team had been robbed. Benitez insisted that the Liverpool fightback was coming anyway. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

The last 15 minutes were a throwback to Liverpool games of the 1970s and 1980s: a visiting team hanging on for dear life, the home side piling players forward, the Kop sucking the ball towards the goal.

Albert Riera’s fierce drive with 11 minutes left was just the beginning. After that, a winner seemed inevitable.

And maybe the Kop did suck in Kuyt’s late winner. It was a slightly mis-hit flying hooked shot from Jermaine Pennant’s right-wing cross. Chris Kirkland got a hand to it. The ball bounced off the underside of the bar and the inside of the post before nestling in the net. Had the keeper’s touch been any stronger, the ball would have stayed out.

The final whistle was greeted with the kind of Anfield roar usually associated with an epic cup victory. That’s how good yesterday’s game was.

Bruce will probably need a while to get the feeling of injustice out of his system. If it’s any consolation to him, Wigan’s performance suggested that they will not face a repeat of the relegation scares they have faced for the last two seasons.

Will Liverpool maintain a title challenge? If they can keep on finding goals from sources other than Torres, maybe. If their defence rediscovers the mean streak that saw them let in just two goals in their opening six Premier League games, maybe.

But it’s Chelsea away next Sunday. And that’s not the sort of game you want to have to come back from behind in.


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