The future is unclear at Liverpool with pressure mounting on manager Rafa Benitez, who seems unable to halt the team’s slide down the table. A disappointing 2-2 draw against Birmingham City capped a run of just one win in nine games, including six defeats, leaving Benitez potentially facing the sack as the squad disperses for the international break.
This was supposed to be Liverpool’s year, with many expecting Benitez to build on last season’s second-place finish and bring the title to Anfield after 19 years. But the team have never got going since the opening day loss at Tottenham. Five league defeats in 12 games have all but ended hopes of winning the championship, barring a monumental effort from here.
Luck has not been on Liverpool’s side, with a beach ball scoring a winning goal at Sunderland and injuries depleting the team and sidelining the squad’s two genuine superstars, Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. But some problems are of Benitez’s own making. He mismanaged Xabi Alonso, who eventually left for Real Madrid, and then bought big-money replacement Alberto Aquilani who was injured and unable to play for three months. His squad also appears remarkably thin given that he has had five years to build his vision.
Things are hardly any easier in the Champions League, where Liverpool face elimination from the Group Stage for the first time under Benitez. The Spaniard has excelled in Europe since taking over, leading Liverpool to two finals and winning the tournament in 2005. Similar success looks unlikely this year with the Reds needing to win their two remaining fixtures, away to Debreceni and home to Fiorentina, and hope results go their way to squeeze through.
Liverpool fans prefer to blame the club’s American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks for what is happening at Anfield so Benitez has been shielded from criticism so far, but a minority are beginning to turn against him. A similar thing happened with previous manager Gerard Houllier – results deteriorated and the fans lost faith – before he left the club. Liverpool supporters have always had a special bond with their manager but should the alarming results continue, action may be taken.
Benitez has had several reassurances from within the club that his job is safe and has the security of a recently signed long-term contract. He also claims that failure to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League would not cause major damage to the club’s finances. A finish outside the top four in the Premier League would be disastrous, however, and a return would not be straightforward given Manchester City’s spending power and ambition.
Should Liverpool get rid of Benitez, he will not be short of offers. His stock is very high in Spain, where he won two league titles with Valencia, and Real Madrid have wanted him as manager for several years. Benitez hinted as much before the game against Birmingham, saying that he had rejected “offers from top club every year for three or four years” because he wanted “to stay for the fans”. He will have to hope the fans’ goodwill remains until he can improve results.
One of the factors working in his favour may well be that there is no obvious candidate to replace him as manager, though Kenny Dalglish could possibly be asked to take on a caretaker role as a short-term measure if the club's owners eventually lose patience with Benitez.
By Chris Shaw, Chief Sports Reporter
A terrible run has piled pressure on Benitez (sunderlandsnaps, Flickr); But the fans are keeping faith