Even shankly had bad years: Rafa
For a heart-stopping moment, until Rafael Benitez's dry humour revealed itself, history seemed to be about to repeat itself yesterday.
"Before we start, some facts. Facts," said the Liverpool manager, whipping a note from his pocket in a reprise of the infamous attack on Alex Ferguson which preceded Liverpool's last trip to Stoke City, 12 months ago.
"We are not playing well and we feel sorry for our fans. I have experience as a manager and we know every week that things can change in football. So, we have confidence that we will improve. Stoke is the first opportunity we have to improve."
It was joke, of course -- a strategy, as Benitez put it, "just to relax the atmosphere. We know we're not doing well and have to improve. That's why I produced (the note). It was to keep a sense of humour."
The gesture should be viewed by Liverpool fans as a source of encouragement: the professor appreciates that bringing some levity can ease his side's plight, and is no longer clinging to the mantra that training alone can bring Liverpool from their most catastrophic period of his tenure.
The cold reality, however, is that the 'facts' have changed very much since his last Friday afternoon recital.
When his side travelled to the Britannia Stadium on January 10 last year, they were hanging onto Manchester United's coat-tails and could have eased past them had they beaten Stoke, and Chelsea overcome the champions next day.
Neither event came to pass. Today, Liverpool hang on Aston Villa's coat-tails and know, as they travel to the Potteries minus Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, that they will drop another place if they draw, and Birmingham beat Portsmouth. And they are out of the FA Cup following Wednesday's humiliating home defeat to Reading.
Benitez invoked the career of his most pre-eminent predecessor to try to mollify supporters.
"The fans are very clever -- they know that Bill Shankly went many years without winning," the Spaniard said, neglecting to add that Shankly had actually delivered Anfield two titles before the seven-year silverware drought between 1966 and 1973.
Never mind the title. Even Liverpool's perspective on a top-four place has been revised down from certainty to hope, judging from the semantics yesterday.
"I said before the top four was the target. But I will change a little bit the message. We cannot be talking about long term. We have to talk about the next game -- to be as close as possible to the top four we need to beat Stoke City."
He also implied that the lack of wealth -- or a Glazer-style credit facility at least -- meant dismal campaigns like this were inevitable.
"You can't always have good seasons. You cannot be consistent at the top of the table with the situation that we have."
That might sound like defeatism but anything to remove some of the pressure from the players seems valuable. The haunting lack of self-belief they display has become a more profound problem than anything Benitez will see in training and the four-month reprieve he has been granted by the owners will be only temporary if he fails to repair confidence.
The manager declared that he considers this to be his battle, rather than the players'.
"I am the first one who has to have the belief," said Benitez. "I think we have a good team and if we can manage the situation and improve, we can play at the same level as last season."
There have evidently been no reassuring emails from the Americans in the few days since the Reading loss, though Benitez insisted he was up for the fight. Yes, he said, he did feel as strong as ever.
"Sometimes you need people helping you and supporting you. Sometimes it depends on you," he said.
And no, he had not considered walking away. "Clearly I want to fight."
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Ryan Babel, whose timing was lamentable again yesterday as he launched his latest Twitter attack on Benitez's decision not to select him for today's squad.
Benitez was not impressed. "It is more than just football now," he said. "Agents, money, TV, radio and internet -- everyone needs to talk."
He would be better off without Babel, though he is pessimistic about the prospects of bringing in new players to replace Torres, who is out for six weeks, and will not off-load unless he finds better alternatives.
"There are not too many players around, that is one thing that is very clear."
Nor reasons to be cheerful, either. Benitez knows how much now rests on him finding some. (© Independent News Service)
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