Monday, December 14, 2009

Time Running Out For Rafael Benitez at Liverpool

There is no shame in losing to Arsenal, but the manner in which the Gunners beat Liverpool will give Rafael Benitez nightmares as he faces up to their umpteenth false dawn this year and what to do next.

Despite his promises this week that this game was the real start to the Reds' season, it has turned out to be another week in which the Reds were pushed aside by a team with a superior work ethic and a better grasp on what is needed to win a match.

This current incarnation of the once great club are a shadow of the ideals and beliefs that Bill Shankley brought to the club 50 years ago.

It is fitting that the anniversary of his arrival is celebrated on Wednesday, as it will give a stark reminder to all who wear the famous red kit what is expected of them. But, most importantly, it will give the manager a real look at what is expected of him.

There have always been questions asked of Benitez during his five years in charge, and while the wily Spaniard is quick to remind fans that he has improved upon the mess that was careening out of control under Gerard Houillier, Benitez always shies away from where the real comparisons lie, with the likes of Shankley, Joe Fagan, Bob Paisley, and even Kenny Dalglish.

In truth, Benitez does not meet these comparisons well, despite the fact that some may point to him having a better win percentage over his first 200 games.

The real comparison is not done on games, it is done on trophies, and more importantly, league trophies.

During his six seasons with the club Benitez has bought poorly.

His transfer dealing has been poor by any ones comparison. Benitez again points to the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea having bigger purses than the Anfield club, but it is a type of smokescreen.

Liverpool have never been the biggest spending club in the league over their long and brilliant history, and while their rivals may have spent more, yes in Chelsea's case, no in United's and Arsenal's, Liverpool are still one of the biggest spending teams in the league.

So, with intelligent purchases they would be title challengers every year. Last year they eventually fulfilled that promise, but fell short at the final hurdle.

That good form was expected to continue again this year, but there was one striking difference. Rafa had sold Xabi Alonso.

Surely the loss of one player would not make that much of a difference?

Yes it did.

Without the Spaniard to pull the strings, the shallow depth of the Liverpool midfield was exposed. Lucas Leivia was pushed in to replace the Real Madrid bound Alonso, and for the most part, was found out of his depth.

Benitez moved to repair the situation, but instead of going for a player like Wesley Sneijder, or Daniele De Rossi, or even Lee Catermole, he chose to sign the injured team mate of De Rossi, Alberto Aquilani.

The Italian midfielder was out after an operation on a damaged ankle, and would miss the first 10 games of the season.

While all like-minded football people questioned this signing, Rafa claimed it was for the good of the team, and he was a signing for the future.

But he missed one clear point that every manager goes by: The future is now.

It is no good in signing the likes of Alberto Aquilani for next season if the manager gets sacked this term for his team's poor run or if the team suffer.

Without a focal point in midfield, Liverpool have crashed out of the Champions League before the knockout stage, and had given up the ghost on their Premiership ambitions before November.

As there was no one in the middle pulling the strings, other players were expected to do extra work to compensate for Alonso's loss and Lucas' failings.

And then the injuries began to mount up, and further cruelly exposed the frailties of the Liverpool squad.

While Liverpool's first team can be a match for any side on their day through their work and endeavour, their reserves are far from the required quality.

Add this lack of real quality to little or no cover in key positions, such as centre forward, looks like a damning indictment on a manager who has been at the club since 2004.

To not have a squad after five seasons and spending £200 odd million is bad enough. To only have David Ngog as back up to Fernando Torres is unforgivable.

But again, Rafa has come up with the excuses—injuries, debt, bad luck... It is funny to hear that last year's last minute winners were the work of a good team, but that this year's last minute defeats are the work of bad luck.

That injuries that have crippled his team only exposes his poor squad and bad buys.

To hear Benitez belittle a club legend like Graeme Souness for offering an opinion as a pundit is strange to say the least, "there be but for the grace of God go I" as the old saying goes.

"I worry," Souness says, "that any day soon we are going to look at the team and say, 'that's not Liverpool.' Those are not the standards we have to come to expect. And then you think of the bankers, and the financial problems of the club, and you wonder where it's going to end."

Rafa's response, "There is always criticism, but I don't listen. I turn off the volume on the TV. Both have fantastic records as managers..." with a sly smile.

Why even respond? All it results in is making the manager look petty, was Souness not one of the best players ever to put on a pair of boots in England? Has he not managed across two continents? Won leagues with different teams? He might not have been as successful at Liverpool as one would have hoped but he suffered the same slings and arrows as Rafa. He deserves his opinion.

Liverpool's defeat to Arsenal today was again worrying. In nine matches against top half opposition Liverpool have only won once this season—against Manchester United.

Every time questions are asked of their defence and their midfield they buckle under the mounting pressure.

Make no mistake, Liverpool may sit in seventh, level on points with Birmingham, but this is a crisis in a club that expects so much more.

The two goals today can be traced to Glen Johnson's poor defending. The first, his own goal, can be credited to poor technique. He was facing the wrong way for Arshavin's wonder strike.

At £18 million, the signing of Johnson from Portsmouth is questionable, especially considering the lack of finances at Anfield at the moment. While it may have been an honourable attempt to infuse the first team with some English blood, the money spent on an average right full who is a poor defender has to be queried.

Even Steven Gerrard is beginning to look like a player who is fatigued from having to carry so much extra weight, and it is sad to hear Liverpool fans calling on the captaincy to be taken from his legendary arm because of a few poor performances by his own high standards.

So where do Liverpool go from here?

Quite frankly, the club is a mess at the moment. The manager is beginning to resemble a boxer who is entering the last few rounds of an extremely brutal battle. Every choice is being questioned as never before, not just by pundits like Souness, but by his very own fans who have backed him throughout.

Players like Gerrard and Carragher are as honest as the day is long, but even they are suffering under the glare of this unknown pressure. Alberto Aquilani is half fit, Fernando Torres loves the club like his own family, but the phenom has many admirers both home and abroad.

In short, Rafael Benitez has to get it right. Now, starting with Wigan on Wednesday. The footballing Gods will be looking down upon the celebration for one of their own before the match, and if Liverpool fail to get all three points they will be angry indeed.

"If I do not win the title (EPL), I’m sure I’d be so disappointed, I would have this feeling (of failure).” Rafael Benitez Nov. 18 2009