LONDON, August 17 – Rafael Benitez has challenged his Liverpool stars to prove their 2-1 defeat at Tottenham was only a blip by getting their title challenge back on track against Stoke on Wednesday.
Benitez’s side slumped to an opening weekend loss on Sunday that left the Liverpool manager raging over referee Phil Dowd’s decision to deny the Reds two late penalties.
Dowd ruled that Tottenham defender Benoit Assou-Ekotto had done nothing wrong when he barged into Andriy Voronin and then appeared to handle Fernando Torres’s cross.
Benitez’s anger was palpable as he ranted about Dowd – waving his glasses at reporters to illlustrate the referee’s apparent blindness – and fourth official Stuart Attwell, who sent off the Spaniard’s assistant Sammy Lee for complaining about the penalty decisions.
"The decisions were very poor. Everyone could see the first one was a penalty. It was so clear," Benitez said.
"The second one was handball. It was so clear it was unbelievable but we knew it would not be a penalty. With this referee, I knew this was impossible."
But deep down Benitez knew that, regardless of those controversial moments, Liverpool’s performance had been well below the standard required to end the club’s 20-year wait to be crowned kings of English football.
The knowledge that Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – Liverpool’s main Premier League rivals – had started their campaigns with victories must have infuriated Benitez even more.
At least the Reds have a chance to put their White Hart Lane pain behind them when Stoke visit Anfield.
Last season Stoke, Hull and Fulham all ground out draws against Liverpool and Benitez admitted his team must improve quickly if they want to avoid a repeat this season.
"Clearly we have to improve if we want to win these types of games," Benitez said. "We have to improve in the middle, keep the ball. The understanding has to be better.
"But it is early and we have another game on Wednesday when clearly we have to improve in possession.
"We knew that we had to play well, but it was not because of the pressure on us.
"Everybody has to improve. We have to win the next game, but for everything else, it is too early."
While Benitez’s complaints about the referee were genuine enough, he must have spent much of the journey back to Merseyside mulling over his close-season transfer activity.
The departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid looks to have left Liverpool desperately short of creativity.
Alonso’s replacement, the Brazilian Lucas Leiva, and midfield partner Javier Mascherano were completely out-played by Tottenham’s Wilson Palacios and Tom Huddlestone.
As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, centre-backs Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel departed north London bloodied and bruised after an accidental collision that left both needing stitches.
Assou-Ekotto had opened the scoring in the first half with a blistering strike before Steven Gerrard’s penalty, awarded for Heurelho Gomes’s foul on Glen Johnson, drew Liverpool level.
Sebastien Bassong, making his debut after signing from Newcastle, headed the winner moments after Gerrard’s spot-kick.
Despite scoring an impressive victory over a member of the league’s big four, Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp refused to get carried away by talk of challenging for a Champions League place.
Redknapp said: "It was a good performance, but now we need to go to Hull on Wednesday and do it all again. We have to go there and show what we are made of."
Redknapp also insisted reports of a bid for Celtic midfielder Scott Brown were wide of the mark.
"I have read I was at Aberdeen on Saturday looking at Scott Brown but I was at Chelsea because they played Hull," he said. "I like Brown, but we have not made an enquiry for him."