LIVERPOOL, February 23 – Rafa Benitez admits that Liverpool's flickering title hopes now rest on the outcome of their next two Premier League games after Dirk Kuyt's equaliser salvaged a 1-1 draw against Manchester City.
Failure to claim all three points against Mark Hughes’ team on Sunday has left Liverpool seven points adrift of reigning champions Manchester United, who host Benitez’s team at Old Trafford on March 14.
But despite this latest setback in Liverpool’s bid to end their nineteen-year title drought, manager Benitez insisted they still live in hope of overhauling Sir Alex Ferguson’s European champions.
"It is clearly more difficult for us now. We have to win against Middlesbrough and Sunderland if we are to win the trophy," Benitez said.
"This is a bad result because we could have done better with our first-half chances. I have confidence that we can still do it, though. We just need to win against Middlesbrough and Sunderland.
"It is not easy to say that United will slip up, but there are still 12 games left to play, so it is not finished yet. It is clear that we will have to go to Old Trafford and beat them, though.
"United can clearly win games with their quality, but if they lose, we have to win and be there to take advantage."
Liverpool must now put domestic issues to one side as they prepare for Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 first-leg clash against Real Madrid in the Bernabeu.
And Benitez admitted that there is still doubt as to whether captain Steven Gerrard will recover from a three-week hamstring lay-off in time to face the nine-time European champions.
"We will see about Gerrard on Monday. He has to train and we will then chat with him and the doctor," Benitez said. "He is improving, but it is not easy to say."
City were unfortunate not to end their six-month wait for an away league victory. Alvaro Arbeloa’s own goal on 51 minutes was the least they deserved and the visitors could have scored more.
Craig Bellamy’s performance against his former club was key to their impressive efforts and boss Hughes admitted that the Wales international had a point to prove to Liverpool.
"You always get players wanting to do well against their former clubs and Craig is no exception in that sense," Hughes said.
"He is a proud man and he probably feels that he didn’t get a fair crack of the whip when he was here at Liverpool.
"But he is a quality player and he has done extremely well for me in the short time that he has been at the club."
Hughes, a two-time title winner during his playing days at Manchester United, admitted that his former club are now in pole position to win the league after this result.
"There are still games to go, so Liverpool can come back, but they will be looking at United to slip up for that to happen," he said.
"United don’t look like slipping up very often, though, so it is going to be difficult for Liverpool now."
In the first-half, Liverpool were simply awful. Gerrard’s absence left a huge hole behind lone striker Fernando
Torres and it was not filled well by the lightweight Israeli, Yossi Benayoun, who failed miserably to trouble City goalkeeper Shay Given and his back four.
City were in confident mood, though, and it did not take long for them to be rewarded after half-time.
Robinho’s pass to Vincent Kompany sprung the offside trap and the Belgian midfielder pulled the ball back for Bellamy, whose shot beat Jose Reina via a wicked deflection off Arbeloa.
It was a deserved opener and City grew in stature, with Ireland having a goal ruled out for offside before Robinho sent a free-kick narrowly wide.
But out of nowhere, Kuyt hauled Liverpool level on 78 minutes with a close range strike.