It was a statement game.

The Premier League has long been a test of consistency more than quality.  A feature of the last season-plus has been Liverpool’s success against Manchester United, Chelsea, and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal.  Sunday’s 2-0 Anfield win was the third consecutive against the champions in the league.

It was a game with admittedly favorable officiating for the Merseysiders, and yet a game in which they had to make do without their captain, Steven Gerrard.  The availability of Fernando Torres, however, was a bonus over last year’s corresponding fixture.  And in a week where Rafa Benitez’s job was anything but secure, he sounded a challenge to both his detractors and his team.

Fitting, then, that it would be Rafa’s compatriot that would strike brilliantly to reopen Liverpool’s title race, if only for now.  Reminiscent of Thierry Henry in his prime, El Niño received an inch-perfect pass from Yossi Benayoun and controlled while fending off England’s first-choice center-half.  With strength and balance only surpassed by his clinical finishing, he slammed the ball into the roof of the net to send the Kop into ecstasy.

In the end, both Nemanja Vidic (for the third consecutive time against ‘Pool in the league) and Javier Mascherano (the Argentine Robbie Savage) were sent off for two bookable offenses, and David N’Gog had scored in injury time to seal a deserved victory.  But surely those devout fans who have been waiting for a league title for 19 years now would prefer to drop points against United and carry the trophy, rather than last season’s double which accompanied an empty trophy case.  So again, it bears mentioning that Liverpool have consistently shown up for the marquee games, but have disappointed all too frequently against lesser competition.

Liverpool’s title challenge wasn’t ended by their fourth loss of the season.  It was ended in the summer transfer window when fan favorite Xabi Alonso was sold to Madrid.  Perhaps Alberto Aquilani will be the answer, ultimately, but for now, solid performances by Lucas are too hard to come by.  And in a league where the big four looks more like a big eight, every dropped point is crucial.