IN his turbulent first season as Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez used to experience what those around him would call "black Mondays". They were the days when he would arrive at work looking agitated, having barely slept since a bad result on the Saturday, and go home in much the same mood, having seen little on the training ground to raise his spirits.
They were the days that were supposed to have been consigned to the past, but in his sixth season at Anfield, darkness has engulfed Benitez and Liverpool. Wednesday's pitiful FA Cup third-round elimination at home to Reading, 21st in the Championship, appeared to represent rock-bottom, but if there is one thing that this season has taught Liverpool's supporters, players and most certainly their manager, it is that the abyss they have entered seems to be bottomless.
These are dark times for Liverpool and Benitez. Whenever it seems there is light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be the headlights of an approaching juggernaut. Yesterday's bulletin on the injuries to Steven Gerrard (pictured) and Fernando Torres, ruled out of action for a fortnight and six weeks respectively, was typical of their season -- not least because it was an accident waiting to happen, given previous prognoses -- and typical of the manner in which the foundations of the team have crumbled over the course of the campaign.
The Benitez regime has begun to look doomed: doomed in the sense of persistent misfortune, which should have been guarded against, and doomed in that it is becoming hard to see any way out of this predicament. There have been new dawns in recent months, but they have always proved to be false. The days of being permanently one defeat from crisis are remembered with misty-eyed fondness; Liverpool have been on the critical list for some time.
The worst thing about Liverpool at present -- and it is possibly the worst thing that you can say about any team -- is that they seem to have lost all faith, all hope, all spirit. The sense of belief that propelled them on a magnificent run last spring, when they thrashed Manchester United and Real Madrid during a two-month sequence that took them to within touching distance of that elusive Premier League title, has been replaced by a sense of gloom. They look like a team that have begun to fear the worst.
Benitez has many qualities as a manager -- far more than his detractors will acknowledge -- but he is not the man you would choose to drag a team out of the grip of a full-scale psychological crisis. He has encountered such depressions on more occasions than he would like to recall during his tenure on Merseyside -- even last season, before that surge towards the finishing line, where they were pipped by United -- but never this deep or as sustained.
The mention of United is apposite. Alex Ferguson's team, with the memories of countless title triumphs to draw on, do not endure periods such as this. Their miserable runs might last weeks, but never months. Their defeats are shrugged off as they prepare to give their next opponents the backlash. Liverpool, the failures of the past two decades playing on the minds of even their newest signings, have no such backlash mechanism. Defeats knock the stuffing out of Liverpool; anxiety overcomes them.
The stale smell of depression was certainly not in evidence towards the end of last season, when Liverpool finished with a commendable total of 86 points, but, again, the failure hit the players hard. So did the loss of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid -- Gerrard said it left him "devastated" -- and, as it became clear that Benitez would not be given the financial backing to strengthen his squad, depression set in again.
By the time they lost 3-0 to Espanyol in a pre-season friendly in August, with the unsettled Javier Mascherano agitating to follow Alonso to Spain, the mood had become unaccountably bleak once more.
There are 101 reasons why this season has been a calamity for Liverpool. The sale of Alonso is a factor, as have been the persistent injuries that have restricted Torres to flurries of brilliance and left Gerrard in pain almost from the start. But just about all the other factors -- the litany of defensive errors late in games, the lack of flair, the loss of form of players such as Martin Skrtel and Dirk Kuyt -- have their roots in that deep-seated psychological malaise.
If it were a simple technical or tactical issue, Benitez would be quick to resolve it. But as the darkness takes hold over Anfield -- and over Melwood, the training ground -- the worry among even his most ardent supporters is that, for the first time, he is running out of answers.