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Rafa relaxing amid chaos

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 routine 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 a 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; proof that the professor has it within him to bring some levity to his side's plight, rather than the mantra that more training on its own can lift Liverpool out of arguably their most catastrophic period under his management. 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 10 January last year they were on the top of the Premier League, five points ahead of Chelsea in second, seven in front of Manchester United, albeit having played two games more. Today, Liverpool languish in seventh in the table, 12 points behind leaders Chelsea, as they travel to the Potteries minus the injured Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, aware that they will drop another place if they draw and Birmingham beat Portsmouth.



predecessors

Benitez invoked the career of one of his more pre-eminent predecessors as evidence that he and the club have been somewhere like this before. "The fans are very clever and they know that Bill Shankly, the most famous manager in the history of the club, went many years without winning," the Spaniard said, neglecting to add that Shankly had actually delivered two league titles to Anfield before the silverware dried up 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 yesterday. "I said before the top four was the target," Benitez said. "But I will change a little bit the message. We cannot be talking about long term. We have to talk about the next game and to be as close as possible to the top four we need to beat Stoke." He also implied that the lack of wealth or, as at Manchester United, a Glazer-style credit facility at least meant times 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 that seeks to remove some of the pressure from the players seems valuable. The haunting lack of self-belief they have displayed recently has become a profound problem and the reprieve Benitez has been granted by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett will only be temporary if he fails to reinstate it.

The manager declared that and this was unusual in that he considers this to be his battle. "When you talk about the manager, I am the first one who has to have the belief," said Benitez, who tends to lay the task at his players' door. "I think we have a good team and we can manage the situation and improve and play at the same level as last season with the majority of the same players."

This was certainly a different Benitez from the one we saw in a very deep pit after Liverpool's FA Cup elimination at home to Reading three days ago. "When you lose at home in the FA Cup against Reading and you know that after 91 minutes we were winning you have to be really disappointed," he said of that night.

There have evidently been no reassuring emails from the American owners in the days since, though Benitez insisted he was up for the fight.



walking

Yes, he said, he did feel as strong as ever inside. "Sometimes you need people helping you and supporting you. We have a very good staff around and sometimes it depends on you." 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 the squad. "What happened after a first good season?" Babel said. "Scoring 10 goals [in the 2007-08 season] being young talent of the year, and then second and this season [I] don't play at all? Where did it go wrong?"

One Benitez sentence spoke volumes. "It is more than just football now," he said. "Agents, money, TV, radios and internet, everyone needs to talk. Everyone has a Twitter or something like that."

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 offload anyone unless he finds better alternatives. "There are not too many players around, that is one thing that is very clear", he said. Nor reasons to be cheerful, either. Benitez knows how much now rests on him finding some.


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