Facing the prospect of imminent Champions League elimination and the estimated £20m financial blow that would bring, Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks made a robust defence of his manager Rafael Benitez yesterday, dismissing criticism of his rotation policy and insisting that his coaching abilities were beyond question.
Hicks, who with fellow American George Gillett Jnr completed an estimated £435m takeover of Liverpool in February, has not been accustomed to making public pronouncements about his manager. But Liverpool's calamitous 2-1 defeat to Besiktas in Istanbul on Wednesday night, which leaves the side needing wins from their remaining three games to stand any chance
of qualifying for the second group stage, led him to affirm the board's support for Benitez.
"We back Rafa. He's the right manager," said Hicks. "Rotation has been his policy for three years. His ability to coach and manage in the Champions League should be unquestioned."
Hicks went considerably further in his critique of Wednesday night's game than Benitez, whose reluctance to describe the defeat as anything other than an unfortunate return on 28 chances created was one of the night's many unexpected turns. "We had a disappointing loss because we got outplayed by the Turks," said Hicks. "I think we have our work cut out, but yes we can qualify. We have to win the next three games."
Asked before the Besiktas game whether the inevitable desire of Hicks and Gillett to cash in on the riches of a Champions League run created additional pressure, Benitez said their money had to be put out of mind. "We cannot be worried about that. We have to make decisions and be focused and clear," he insisted. Yet elimination would cost Liverpool dear. The financial rewards for reaching the last 16 are £1.5m per team, with £1.7m and £2m respectively for the quarter- and semi-finals. But it is the immense merchandising benefits which Hicks and Gillett would miss most. Hicks is aware of the vagaries of sport: his Texas Rangers baseball club have also had a bad year.
So poor has Liverpool's Champions League campaign proved so far – one point and two goals leave them bottom of Group A – that goalkeeper Jose Reina admitted yesterday that the club faces a fight just to make third place in the group and clinch a Uefa Cup place. "We need three points because Besiktas are ahead of us, even in the fight for the Uefa Cup," he said. "We have to beat them at home and get ahead of them at least."
The words "the fight for the Uefa Cup" seemed unimaginable when Benitez was investing Hicks and Gillett's money this summer and some fans might even now consider fourth place in Group A – and short-term humiliation – a better prospect than Uefa Cup qualification to hinder Liverpool's bid to make a meaningful impression in the Premier League.
Benitez was stony-faced when he appeared shortly after Wednesday night's game for a press conference at which he did not so much clutch at straws as at a Uefa match stats sheet. The Spaniard had spotted radio journalists examining the figures, asked for a look and within 30 seconds was quoting from them.
Some recalled in Benitez's use of statistics Gérard Houllier's proclivity for firing out figures when his team performed badly. The comparisons between the two stops there – but suggestions that Liverpool were simply unfortunate seem more than a touch delusional. There is no statistical measure, of course, for ingenuity, vision and the match-changing touches which Liverpool lacked, and Reina also drew on numbers to support the side's case. "We were unlucky in front of goal and what more can you do?" he asked. "We have conceded two goals from four shots on target. We could only score one from 10. What [more] can I say?"
But some might question why Lucas Leiva trotted on in place of Javier Mascherano after three quarters of an hour while Peter Crouch had to wait until the last five minutes to appear and quickly set up Steven Gerrard's goal.
Even if Benitez does wind up competing for the Uefa Cup he won with Valencia in 2004, he may feel more uninhibited about concentrating on the trophy most covet.
The acid test of whether Liverpool, still unbeaten in the Premier League, really have the mettle to challenge for it, comes straight away and though Arsenal's arrival on Sunday seems daunting, it might also be the dose of salts Benitez's team needs.
"Sunday is another competition," said Reina, who knows that defeat to Arsenal would open a formidable nine-point gap between the sides. "With all respect to the three teams in our [European] group, we're going to play against a better team on Sunday. We're playing at Anfield. We're excited about that, and it's a top, top game in the Premiership and we are optimistic. It won't be difficult for us to pick ourselves up."
Asked this week what was his best midfield combination, Benitez delivered a characteristically complex answer but hinted that Gerrard and Xabi Alonso might fit the bill against less physical sides when there is a need to "move the ball." With Alonso close to fitness, Sunday might finally herald his return to inject the creativity Liverpool have lacked of late.
In the Champions League, Liverpool need a miracle matching any but the 2005 final if they are to progress from Group A. But they can take heart from the fact that two of the six clubs to have made it through after gaining fewer than two points from the first games are British: Arsenal, three years ago, and Newcastle, who progressed after failing to register a point from three games.
One permutation would leave Liverpool facing an eliminator in Marseilles on 11 December if the French side – whose league form has remained unimpressive since they won in Liverpool – beat Besiktas but lose to Porto and Liverpool beat both those teams.
Jamie Carragher yesterday urged fans to remember the 2005 heroics against Olympiakos and those with longer memories will conjure thoughts of a famous French night, against St-Etienne in 1977. Benitez can only keep an eye on the numbers – and hope.
Results: Marseilles 2 Besiktas 0; Porto 1 Liverpool 1; Besiktas 0 Porto 1; Liverpool 0 Marseilles 1; Besiktas 2 Liverpool 1; Marseilles 1 Porto 1.
Fixtures: 6 Nov: Liverpool v Besiktas; Porto v Marseilles. 28 Nov: Besiktas v Marseilles; Liverpool v Porto. 11 Dec: Marseilles v Liverpool; Porto v Besiktas.
What Liverpool must do to qualify from their group:
Rafael Benitez's side will probably have to win all three of their remaining games if they are to avoid failing to reach the knockout stages for the first time under the Spaniard. Two of the games are at Anfield, suggesting a better chance, although they did lose at home to Marseilles. They can, however, go through with seven points if they beat the French side by more than one goal and Besiktas fail to win twice. A six-point haul is less likely to see them through, with Marseilles already on the seven points the Reds would accrue, and Porto one victory away.