Roughly this time last year Rafael Benitez gave a press conference prior to an away game against Stoke famously stating ‘facts’ about Liverpool and, more prevalently Manchester United’s, season. At the time Liverpool stood proudly 2 points clear of the chasing pack in their best ever start to a Premier league season. Today with another daunting trip to the Brittania Stadium looming Benitez provided a more sombre précis of Liverpool’s increasingly failing season with a heartfelt apology to the Liverpool faithful. Renowned for their patience and loyalty, Benitez’ message conceded, “We are not playing well and we all feel sorry for the fans”. The man is under fire; head up in the trenches and anyone and everyone is firing. Unquestionably his job hangs by a thread. Many believe defeat at Stoke tomorrow will spell the end of his tenure. A win? The same fate, only slightly delayed. But let’s spare a thought for a man whose showing the first sign of emotion after such intense scrutiny and, criticism in some parts, must have left him feeling ostracised.
Benitez is indisputably overseeing an immensely unsuccessful and frustrating period as manager of Liverpool Football Club. Though doesn’t it seem more justifiable given that off the field the club is in the sort of turmoil that only Pompey and QPR can relate to? West Ham maybe; and of course we’ll chuck Notts County in there. My point is this: how long did people expect the team to prosper while the club itself represented uncertainty and unwanted controversy? In no other job would a manager be expected to achieve previously unattainable targets with the organisation crumbling around them. Success brings expectation and the relative success of last season (trophy-less but not without meteoric improvement) has brought its own expectation. However, in a period whereby the club has endured much change and inner squabbling, with American owners George Gillet and Tom Hicks causing more trouble than their worth (literally), Benitez should be commended for the job he’s done. Up till now he has overseen one of the steadiest ships in the league, writing himself into the history books with the Champions League in 2005, while producing a team closer to winning the title every year.
Of course Benitez has made some bad mistakes. His record in the transfer market is dubious with the likes of Morientes, Babel, Lucas, Pennant, Dossena and Voronin all failing to make any sort of impact. The stubbornness he displayed over the signing of Robbie Keane now seems to be to the team’s detriment. Many point to the enforced loss of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid this summer as a turning point in Liverpool’s form, as his creativity has been missed. However, Benitez was practically pushing him out of the door the previous year as he pursued Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry, and therefore can’t site Alonso’s exit as an excuse. The gamble to buy the unfit talent of Alberto Aquilani has not paid off and Liverpool now find themselves ever more reliant on the two superstars, Torres and Gerrard. Benitez will be bitterly frustrated with the fitness woes both have incurred and can count himself unlucky on this front, but sadly for Liverpool fans without them is a team that would finish closer to the middle of the table than the top.
So as we potentially see the end of an era at Anfield, a new one beckons. And that man will be a big name; the current demise of the team is hardly going to be a deterrent for the likes of Hiddink or Mourinho, to name but two of the names being linked with Benitez’ job. Personally, I’d give Benitez at least until the end of the season to turn things around. Harry Redknapp today described Benitez as a “top manager with a fantastic record” and explained that Liverpool are “suffering the sort of blip that every team has”. Replacing the word “blip” with “minor crisis”, I’d agree wholeheartedly and I cannot see the value in sacking him now. The circumstances of the club will not change overnight and any manager coming in will be faced with the same lack order, lack of money, and a squad desperately thin on quality. Based on his record, I believe Liverpool can still finish fourth and save their season. Rafa described Stoke as his ”future” at the end of his press conference; however, after tomorrow, he could well be history.