The sense of despair gripping Liverpool's season after their FA Cup fifth-round defeat to Barnsley was given voice by Jamie Carragher yesterday when he admitted that the team's current form could not simply be dismissed as a blip. "I wouldn't call this just a bad spell, it's been a lot longer than that," he said. "We realise that we are not playing well enough."
It was an honest verdict on Liverpool, who face Internazionale in the Champions League at Anfield tomorrow at a time when the issues of the club's ownership, Rafael Benitez's future and a catastrophic slump in form are coming to a head. Carragher said that Liverpool had been prematurely written off before European encounters in the past, but no result in Benitez's four seasons has been as shattering as Saturday's 2-1 defeat.
"It's not a matter of putting your finger on one reason," Carragher said. "It's simply because we have not been good enough."
The Italian champions face a Liverpool manager who seems ever more certain to depart in the summer. With no viable alternative in the short term, there has been no suggestion that Benitez's departure will be imminent, even if his side are eliminated by Inter. Yet with the Champions League his only realistic chance of a trophy, Benitez dismissed claims he would have to win it to stay in a job. "I don't know too many managers who have won the Champions League," he said.
That 2005 Istanbul triumph is beginning to look ever more faded as dressing-room disillusionment with tactics and selection becomes ever more evident on the pitch. The embarrassment against Barnsley was played out against more reports of a takeover from Dubai International Capital (DIC), which is understood to be positioning itself for a bid. As the club enter a period of crisis on the pitch there seems even less appetite to make long-term decisions until the DIC situation is resolved.
Carragher said: "We're devastated, obviously. It's a major, major blow to go out of the competition to a lower league team at
Anfield. We realise that's not good enough. This clearly isn't the best preparation for Inter. But we had the same situation last season, when we lost to Arsenal twice in the cups and people said we were finished before we'd even played Barcelona. But we got through on that occasion and, hopefully, this can be the same again.
"You get feedback from supporters all the time. Obviously, they are not too happy about things at the moment. Myself and Stevie [Gerrard], because we are local lads, hear a lot from supporters and we are supporters ourselves. We know what is being said. The supporters are as disappointed as we are."
While there has been staunch opposition among
Liverpool's support to the owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jnr after they revealed their approach to Jürgen Klinsmann, that solidarity with Benitez at least seems to be dwindling. There were vastly reduced numbers at the Kop protest after the game on Saturday, a sign patience is running thin with the manager. While the majority of the club's support would wish to see DIC in place of the Americans, their backing of Benitez is no longer quite so emphatic.
For their part, the Americans have not attended a game in person since the defeat to Manchester United on 16 December and there are no concrete plans for them to attend the Inter match. Meanwhile, there is a growing number of players for whom contractual and selection issues mean that their future is in the balance. Xabi Alonso, John Arne Riise, Peter Crouch and Sami Hyypia are all potential departures in the summer. Harry Kewell's contract expires then and the deal for a permanent move for Javier Mascherano, while agreed, seems as far as ever from being signed.
In contrast, Inter beat Livorno 2-0 yesterday with two goals from David Suazo to go 11 points clear at the top of Serie A. They did so without the strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Julio Cruz, who were rested with the Liverpool game in mind. Ibrahimovic has scored 14 goals in 20 appearances in the league and five in five in the Champions League.
On Saturday, Benitez refused to acknowledge there was anything like a crisis and was adamant his team had created chances to win the match. "If you say that the players weren't working hard, I would say that's not true," he said.
Carragher said the team were in no doubt as to how "poor" they had been against Barnsley. He said: "We have got to get over it. We can't do anything about all the things that are happening off the field. We just have to concentrate on improving the football side. We're paid to play football and, if we can start winning matches again, then a lot of the other stuff can be put to bed."