Reds at crossroads
Benitez knows 'Pool future all about Champions League spot
AT HOME and abroad, on the pitch and in the boardroom, Liverpool are at the crossroads.
Retain their Champions League status and secure outside investment to break the cycle of stagnation which has hamstrung the club since 2007, and step forward. Fail, and fall back. Liverpool have three months to determine their next three years.
Before the panacea, though, comes the placebo. Liverpool, pride dented and character questioned after defeat at Wigan on Monday, arrived in Lille yesterday ahead of the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie with Rudi Garcia's side, a team embroiled in the French title race and hardly the compliant opponents manager Rafael Benitez would have desired.
The message emanating from Anfield is that Europe's secondary competition represents a chance to restore their reputation, but an appearance in Hamburg in May is of tertiary importance. Whether the disappointment of this season becomes the exception or the rule for coming years will not be decided by a gleaming trinket salvaged from a campaign of unmitigated gloom.
Rather, Benitez knows Liverpool's future rests on seeing off Manchester City, Tottenham and Aston Villa to finish in that coveted fourth Champions League slot, and on managing director Christian Purslow's ability to secure fresh funding, a condition set down by RBS and Wachovia if owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are to refinance the club's £237m debt.
Only then would Liverpool be able to start work on the long-awaited new stadium on Stanley Park, to guarantee the futures of those players Benitez values most highly and to furnish him with a squad capable of sustaining a Premier League challenge.
"I agree that the end of this season could be a crucial period for the future of the club," Benitez said. "We have been talking about investors, about the new stadium, about all of these things for two years now.
"I have more information and maybe a better picture. But the best thing for the club is for me to concentrate on football and try to get the best from the players. I have confidence we will progress in (the Premier League and Europa League). If we cannot, everybody will say it is a bad season. But all clubs have bad seasons. We would have to move forward and prepare for the future."
The question is whether the club could afford a season quite that bad. Missing out on the Champions League would leave a shortfall of at least £10m in the club's budget, while Benitez would find himself condemned to spending only what he can raise from sales -- again -- if Purslow fails to find new part or full owners.
"You would have to manage," says Benitez, stoic as ever. "We have to concentrate on things on the pitch. It is better for the players if they think of the next game, not about the future."
For most of his staff, there is scant solace there. The Spaniard admits his side's first-half performance at Wigan was one of the most "disappointing" of his reign, not least because of an apparent lack of "leadership" on the field.
Benitez added: "It is important to show leadership. Watching the highlights I could see the goalkeeper blaming the defence and vice versa, and sometimes that is part of the game. But if you see it too much, it means you are making too many mistakes."
Benitez also defended his captain, Steven Gerrard, following allegations the midfielder made a V-sign towards referee Andre Marriner during the Wigan defeat. Benitez said after reviewing the incident on video that he believes there is no case to answer.
He said: "Sometimes you move your fingers. It was nothing. We are not considering it, it was nothing"
Midfielder Yossi Benayoun is doubtful after sustaining an ankle injury against Wigan, but centre-back Daniel Agger should be available having recovered from a sickness bug which reduced him to the role of unused substitute on Monday. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
Liverpool (probable ) -- Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Agger, Insua; Mascherano, Lucas; Kuyt, Gerrard, Babel; Torres.
Lille v Liverpool,
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