Ian Herbert: Bad deals and risky tactics: how Rafa’s Reds fell so fast

In one year Liverpool’s manager has slipped from conqueror of Real Madrid and thorn in Ferguson’s side to become a man clinging on to power
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The Independent Online

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 9 January; 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 Sir 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 memorable 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 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, 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.

Q&A How safe is Benitez? And how would Reds adjust to life without him?

What would it cost Liverpool to sack Rafael Benitez?

Around £20m, to buy him out of his five-year contract, though another damaging factor would be the potential loss of Fernando Torres, whose loyalty to the club is bound up in his close relationship with Benitez. It was Benitez who beat Sir Alex Ferguson to Torres's signature by picking up the phone and asking him to sign. Benitez's departure would also mean the unpicking of the academy structure he has started to create.

Would sacking him improve the search for new investors?

Not necessarily. One of the main pitches to the handful of investors who are considering taking a 25 per cent share in the club, thus injecting £100m, is that Liverpool are in a stable position on the footballing side. That said, failure to make next season's Champions League would be a further diminution of the club's "blue chip" status. The search for investors is reaching a significant stage, with managing director Christian Purslow revealing this week that he has "maybe a handful of serious groups who are interested in investing".

How certain are the Americans that Benitez is the man for the future?

Less so with each lurch in this terrible season. Sources suggest that Tom Hicks and George Gillett will consider this summer whether Benitez is the man for their club. Jose Mourinho is the obvious possible replacement candidate and, curiously, there is a feeling that Fabio Capello might be another if he does well with England in South Africa this summer and feels he has taken the national team as far as he can. The possibility of Kenny Dalglish assuming control in a temporary capacity cannot be ruled out if Liverpool continue to slide.

Ian Herbert

Poor signings: Benitez's worst recruits

Ryan Babel (67 apps, 17 goals)

The 23-year-old Dutch international has flattered to deceive, despite a promising start after arriving for £11.5m from Ajax in July 2007.

Lucas Leiva (63 apps, four goals)

Another 2007 arrival. The £6m Brazilian has long been derided by the Kop for his lightweight performances.

Emilio Insua (33 apps, one goal)

The Argentinian left-back who arrived aged 18 was embarrassed for Reading's winner on Wednesday and has looked an increasingly weak link in recent weeks.

Robbie Keane (19 apps, seven goals)

Arrived amid great fanfare for £20m move in 2008 but struggled to impress, or was badly utilised. Sent back to Tottenham at an £8m loss six months later.

Andrei Voronin (22 apps, six goals)

Pony-tailed Ukrainian arrived on a free transfer in 2007 but was shipped out to Hertha Berlin on loan last year and joined Dynamo Moscow this month.

Andrea Dossena (22 apps, two goals)

Moved to Napoli last week after struggling to establish a place in the Reds' defence, making just 31 appearances in two seasons. Joined for £7m.

Jermaine Pennant (54 apps, 3 goals)

Despite displaying fitful bursts of genuine talent, the £6.7m winger was unable to hold a regular berth. Loaned to Portsmouth before joining Real Zaragoza last summer.

Alberto Aquilani (10 apps)

Great things were promised once he recovered from an ankle injury, but the £20m Italian has proved lightweight and ineffectual thus far.

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