Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Rafa to Walk Through a Storm Into The Lyon's Den

Liverpool travels to Lyonnais to play what is simply the clubs biggest game in decades and certainly the most important in the clubs recent history. Bigger than Istanbul, bigger than Rome, and possibly even bigger than that fateful night in 1892 when a few long-sighted men decided to split from Everton to set up their own team.

Yes, the game is that massive...

Its magnitude has not been lost on their manager, Rafael Benitez, as in the run up to this season defining match he has been robbed of the very best talent available to him.

He knows that the very future of the club, and indeed his future, hangs in the balance. Following a meeting with Christian Purslow, Liverpool's Chief Executive, Rafa was told to concentrate on the Champions League because of their massive debt.

Defeat and an early knock-out from the world's best club competition would have a devastating effect on the short term future of the team.

Liverpool is deep in debt.

Their £290 million loan to Royal Bank of Scotland is by no means the largest debt in the Premiership. But the payment methods used by Liverpool mean the club has until next June to pay the loan off.

Last June, RBS came within hours of sending the club into administration after it had come to their knowledge that Liverpool FC was unable to meet their re-payments. A senior director at RBS brokered a deal that saw the club pay £60 million to reduce the debt to £290 million and to restructure that payment so it would be paid off in full in June 2010.

Add that to the dire news that the club is losing somewhere in the region of £650,000 per week and you get the distinct idea that tomorrow's match is a huge one for their short-term future.

Winning the EPL this season is not going to happen, and the emergence of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur as viable contenders to Liverpool for the final place in the Champions League means that the Reds face a very tough season ahead.

So far this year, Liverpool has shown a diatinct aversion to beating good teams, bar Manchester United. In every other match where serious questions have been asked of them, they have lost.

The last time they played Lyon at Anfield, they were beaten 2-1, as Claude Puel's side scored twice in the last 20 minutes after Liverpool had taken an early lead and manager Benitez was booed by his own fans for the first time in his tenure.

And now they travel to the Stade Gerland, with something of an injury and confidence crisis.

Benitez will be without at least eight squad members and Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani are only half-fit.

Talismanic captain Steven Gerrard is perhaps the most notable casualty, and his absence will hit the club badly.

With him and Torres, Liverpool wins 79 percent of their matches. Without one or both, the win percentage drops to 53.

Already without Gerrard (groin), Albert Riera (hamstring), Martin Kelly (ankle) and Martin Skrtel (muscle and virus) and the Reds were hit with the news that their two first-choice full backs have had to return to Liverpool for medical attention, Glen Johnson (calf) and Fabio Aurelio (calf).

The loss of the full backs is complicated by Philip Degen not being a member of the Champions League squad.

Add that to the half-fit Torres (groin), Aquilani (virus), Agger (back) and Ngog (ankle), and Liverpool's team will resemble the walking wounded against the team on top of Group E.

The only good news that seems to be coming out of Anfield at the moment is that Pepe Reina wants to extend his contract. But he wants his pay doubled to match that of the highest earners at the club.

Should Liverpool lose tomorrow, they need Debrechen to beat Fiorentina in Italy, a highly unlikely outcome. That would then leave Lyon and Fiorentina to carve up the group by playing out a draw.

Liverpool and Benitez need Champions League success to ensure their short-term futures. Lose, and the club will enter a dark period where they will only see the light at the end of the tunnel if they qualify for the same competition next year.

For many fans at Liverpool, Benitez is a man who could take an axe to a cabinet only for it to be hailed as modern art. He can do no wrong.

But the tide of support for him has begun to ebb away. For the first time in his reign, ex-players like Ronnie Whelan, Graeme Souness, Ray Houghton and Alan Hansen have begun to question his future at their old stomping ground. Others like David Fairclough and Dietmar Hamann have called on the board to stick with their man, at least until the end of the season.

As it stands, Benitez is one of the most powerful figures at the club. He has personally picked the Academy and Reserve Team coaches as well as the first-team backroom, the scouting system is also his, and he is in charge of transfers after the resignation of Rick Parry.

In short, Benitez has the power to stand up to Liverpool's two American owners. Neither can sack him without the say-so of the other, an unlikely proposition considering their animosity towards each other.

One theory doing the rounds, that Liverpool can't afford to sack Benitez, is wide of the mark. Should they part company, Rafa would only receive around 18 months worth of his wages in compensation. The club could easily afford that much.

The problems would then arise if Benitez chose to bring some of his staff with him, or if Liverpool decided to part with them also. This could cause a massive vacuum at the club, which could potentially lose its entire back-room staff.

So the game tomorrow night has huge ramifications. Liverpool must win. Anything less and the targets for this year become smaller and harder to attain. And even if they do win, they then face two more critical matches.

In Benitez's time at Anfield, Liverpool has won when least expected.

They did it in Istanbul. They need to do it again. Only this time, the prize on offer is the club's future.

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