Rafa Benitez had had his back against the wall on several
occasions since he became Liverpool manager in 2004,
but until this week the pressure had never built to the point
where his job was possibly at stake. The Spaniard has
enjoyed a great rapport with Liverpool fans, largely helped by
the sensational Champions League win in Istanbul, as well
as his passion for the club and the city. However, the last month has seen Liverpool suffer four consecutive defeats and a despairing feeling has surrounded the club.
It is not hyperbole to suggest that today's match against Manchester United was one of the biggest games in Liverpool's recent history. On their worst run of form for 22 years, the game represented a chance for a fresh start and renewed hope, and that is exactly what happened. The team were committed and enthusiastic, while the likes of Carragher and Agger put in heroic performances which have been lacking recently. A 2-0 victory was fully deserved and could be the catalyst for Liverpool battling their way back into the title race.
Liverpool appointed Rafa Benitez five years ago after Gerard Houllier's reign had gone increasingly stale. Benitez had a great record in Spain, winning two titles, and had success in Europe. The board hoped he could bring a freshness and new ideas to Liverpool, and get a lot closer to the elusive 19th title. He invigorated Liverpool and sensationally delivered the Champions League in his first season. However, there is a feeling that the goodwill generated towards him by that trophy is starting to wear thin. Strange selection policies, some poor signings and the terrible start to this campaign have left the manager in a less than secure position.
A game against great rivals Manchester United was always going to be a huge point in the season but especially so this time with Liverpool at such a pivotal moment. Liverpool fans have had to watch United rack up championships in the last two decades but were always comforted by being top of the pile with 18. But the old enemy levelled that score last season and matched the Reds as England's most successful team.
Needing a result and a performance to encourage fans, Liverpool dominated the match from the start and should have been ahead before half-time.
Playing an adventurous 4-4-2, and without Steven Gerrard, the Reds overwhelmed the away team and Fernando Torres scored a wonderful goal to take the lead. The defence finally showed its worth and kept United out before substitute David N’Gog finished the game in stoppage time. Befitting a derby match, both teams were strong in the tackle and determined to win, and that was borne out by a sending off for both sides. The atmosphere inside Anfield was at its loudest and that spurred the team on, Benitez praising the fans after the match as the team’s “12th man”.
Whatever way you look at it, it has not been a good season for Liverpool. Rated as genuine title contenders in August, the season could have effectively been over before the end of October. Star players have been short of form, defending has been woeful, big money signing Alberto Aquilani has yet to kick a ball for the first team and injuries have struck again for Gerrard and Torres, showing up the side's weakness without them. There has been some bad luck along the way, and last week's beach ball freak goal against Sunderland will go down in history, but Liverpool only have themselves to blame for the position they are in. Waves of beach balls swept across the pitch against United, but none affected the outcome this time.
As good as today's result was, there is still a lot of work to be done, but things should start to look up from here. The pressure on Benitez and the team should lift now that the dismal run of defeats has been stopped, and players are starting to return from injury. Midfielder Aquilani played for the reserves during the week and should be ready for the first team in the next few weeks. A difficult run of fixtures is coming to an end and Liverpool are capable of going on a long unbeaten run before Christmas.
Off the pitch affairs seem to be calmer too. Joint-owners Hicks and Gillett are trying to show unity and keep any disputes in-house, while Benitez has had assurances this week from both joint-owner George Gillett and managing director Christian Purslow that his job is safe in the short-term and the future. His long-term contract binds him to the club and the Spaniard has always insisted that he and his family are happy in Liverpool and could stay here for a long time.
Come May, Liverpool fans could be looking back on this game as the turning point of the season and the turning point of Rafa Benitez’s career at Anfield.
Words by Chris Shaw, Chief Sports Reporter
View from The Kop in pictures
Pepe Reina ran the length of the field to celebrate when David N'Gog made it 2-0 (right)