Fall of an empire
If football were a neat and tidy business, it would be tempting to say that the beginning of the end for Rafael Benitez occurred on this self-same Friday last year.
It was January 9; the afternoon before his side visited Stoke City -- as they do once again tomorrow -- when the Liverpool manager took a piece of A4 paper from his jacket pocket and began a calm character assassination of Alex Ferguson.
Liverpool managed only a 0-0 draw at the Britannia Stadium the next day, Manchester United beat Chelsea 3-0 that weekend, and the Stretford End suddenly had a new chant on its hands.
Except Rafa was not cracking up, as Old Trafford so memorably claimed in the days to follow. Liverpool's league record in the 18 games which followed "Rafa's rant" was: played 18, won 12, drew 5, lost 1. That was a solitary league defeat at Middlesbrough in the entire remainder of a season which was punctuated by the thrilling 4-0 defeat of Real Madrid at Anfield and their most devastating away win at Manchester United for years.
Untidy though it may seem to those seeking to extract easy conclusions from the chaos of Liverpool and their latest ignominious FA Cup exit, they were one of the most formidable teams on the continent last spring.
Not much has changed in terms of personnel since then. Consider the side Benitez fielded last March for the imperious 5-0 home win over Aston Villa -- a team who so nearly beat Manchester United in their next league match -- that made them appear to be champions-elect: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt, Riera, Torres.
Only Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso have since gone and Alonso, though lamented, was not as indispensable last season as some claim in hindsight.
But one of the bywords for success in sport is momentum. Liverpool, with one significant player fewer, have lost it and vanished from the place they occupied. The downfall has been shockingly abrupt and the seeds of it are actually to be found back at the stadium where Liverpool travel tomorrow.
The goalless draw at the Britannia last January, when Steven Gerrard came a lick of paint's width from scoring a winner, belonged to the pattern of draws against the Premier League's poor relations which persuaded Benitez that things must change things if Liverpool were to take the final step and seize United's crown. It was his typical statistician's logic: had Gerrard scored at Stoke and Everton's Tim Cahill not netted three minutes from time at Anfield in the next game, Liverpool would have matched Manchester United's points tally and lifted the title on goal difference.
So, out went the caution which had led Benitez's side to conquer the continent and in came two of the most promising attacking full-backs: £17m Glen Johnson, of whom there were great expectations, and Emiliano Insua, an academy player in whom there were fewer. Both can surge forward, but neither can defend to great effect -- to the extent that you now wonder whether both would be better off deployed as orthodox wingers. As Hull crumbled to a 6-1 defeat at Anfield in September, Liverpool attacked incessantly, scenting a kill and the new strategy seemed to be working. In Florence three days later, they looked ill-equipped to revert to their more patient, European style and lost 2-0. Fabio Aurelio said that night that he had never seen Benitez so angry. The manager's response was borne of an alien experience.
Now Benitez is in a dreadful place, Wednesday's triple injury blow compounding the sense that Liverpool may drift into mid-table in the weeks ahead.
The club's pitiful season has presaged some hard analysis of his judgement in the transfer market -- questionable indeed, at an outlay of £227m in his five years, £145m of that spent under Tom Hicks and George Gillett's ownership.
Enough of the big buys have generally performed. It is the mass of players in the £3-7m bracket which are the killer: Luis Garcia, Fernando Morientes, Momo Sissoko, Daniel Agger, Craig Bellamy, Jermaine Pennant, Lucas Leiva -- the list goes on. They are nearly all what you might call the 'maybe players' who have simply not been good enough -- the current bunch absent to a man this season when Benitez has needed them to step up amid the injuries.
They have not cost the Spaniard his job -- yet. The word from Texas and L4 yesterday was that the benefits of removing Benitez now, to make way temporarily, perhaps, for Kenny Dalglish, a friend and confidante of the managing director, Christian Purslow, do not outweigh the penalties.
But it has left Benitez above all needing mighty powers of motivation to reverse the downward trend -- and that is what seems so worrying for Liverpool. Inspiring others is not his strong suit, for all the ink spilt about half-time in the European Cup final in Istanbul five years back.
Benitez's prickliness about precisely what he disliked in the Reading defeat did not engender a sense of leadership, and among the manager's many foibles is a disinclination to accept that his own actions have contributed to defeat.
Since it was his own decision to throw some caution to the wind this season, without having the defence to back him up, Benitez has a point to prove tomorrow. Gerrard won't be playing at Stoke but a goal or two for Liverpool will demonstrate that they have gained some new powers, at least, in a season where the winning formula has been lost.
Contenders for hot seat
Strutting Portuguese is a proven winner, an all-important trait when it comes to winning over the Anfield faithful.
Sources close to the Italian believe his present job will not be his last.
Expected to leave Russia in the near future after failing to qualify for the World Cup.
The Northern Irishman has been linked with Anfield before, though on current form Aston Villa are a better long-term bet for success than Liverpool. (© Independent News Service)