Defiant Rafa insists Reds not dead yet

Society Materials 17 December 2007 06:27 (UTC +04:00)

( AFP ) - Rafael Benitez has insisted Liverpool can still claim their first English title since 1990, despite falling ten points off the pace after another painful defeat at the hands of Manchester United.

Carlos Tevez's strike - just before half-time in a match Liverpool might easily have won - gave United a 1-0 victory at Anfield, where Sir Alex Ferguson's men have not lost a league match since 2001.

The manner of Sunday's defeat will have been particularly frustrating for Benitez as the match was to be followed by talks with George Gillet and Tom Hicks, the club's American owners with whom he has enjoyed a fraught relationship.

But the Spaniard insisted that his side's spirited performance was evidence that they are much closer to mounting a sustained challenge to the champions than they were when they lost the corresponding fixture last season in similar fashion.

"For me it is too soon (to talk about the title), there is still a long way to go," Benitez said.

"It will be harder now. If we are going to get closer we need to start winning some games in a row. But we have seen this season that every team can lose points, so I have confidence to keep going and try to keep winning.

"These games between the top sides are always tough. We created some good chances in the first half but we couldn't take them. They had two chances, took one and always in these games it is very important to score first.

"I don't see a big difference between the two teams. It was just a small detail that made the difference."

That small detail was a sloppy piece of defending by Liverpool, who allowed Wayne Rooney to loiter with intent ten yards outside the box as Ryan Giggs took a corner in front of the Kop.

Giggs duly side-footed a pass to the England forward, whose shot was diverted into the net by Tevez within two minutes of the end of a first-half that Liverpool had bossed.

Despite the defeat, Benitez expressed confidence that his talks with Gillet and Hicks would be positive.

The future of Javier Mascherano, the outstanding midfielder on either side on Sunday, was expected to top the agenda with Benitez keen to ensure funds are in place to make the Argentina star's move to Liverpool permanent.

"It is a meeting for talking about the future, not just one game," Benitez said.

"We need to clarify the situation for the future but it's not about money (for transfers). It is important to clarify the situation now - maybe afterwards we will talk about names."

Gillet and Hicks will certainly have been left in no doubt about Benitez's popularity among the Anfield faithful and they should also have been convinced by Liverpool's demonstration that they are getting closer to knocking United off their perch.

With Mascherano dominating the midfield battle, Liverpool had spurned a couple of good half chances by the time a weak punch from Edwin van der Sar fell to Harry Kewell just before the half hour mark.

The Australian's shot was blocked on the line by Anderson but the rebound popped up invitingly for Fernando Torres, who contrived to nod the ball an inch the wrong side of the post from four yards.

United had another let-off three minutes later, when a van der Sar charge off his line caused chaos among his centrebacks which resulted in Rio Ferdinand back-heading the ball towards his own goal, only a smart intervention by Patrice Evra preventing it from trundling into the net.

United boss Sir Alex Ferguson could justifiably point to the fact that his side had the clearest chance of the second half -- which Rooney side-footed wide from eight yards after being teed up by Cristiano Ronaldo's lovely outside-of-the-boot delivery.

But the Scot agreed with Benitez's observation that it was too early to count Liverpool out of the title race.

"Any gap in terms of points is significant in December," said Ferguson.

"But I always think it is important to wait until you get to the end of the month to see where you are. If we are around the top on January 1 we will have a real chance of winning the league and we will also know who our challengers are going to be."