Ian Herbert: Hamburg final still on but it could be Rafa's finale
It was a chaotic but characteristic goal for Liverpool's abject travels this season
Friday 23 April 2010
The day dawned with more details of how Rafael Benitez's lawyers and agents are, piece by piece, clause by clause, preparing a route out of Anfield to Turin should he need one next month and the sun was dropping in the Madrid sky when Javier Mascherano added his own contribution to the sense that Liverpool are a club in a state of drift. "We have a very important game for us, the supporters, the club and that's the main thing. We will have time to talk about my future," Mascherano said, unconvincingly, when asked whether a new contract might be on the way.
Everywhere you looked was evidence that the journey to a 16th European semi-final, satisfying though it has been for the red side of Merseyside when other English Champions League competitors' international travels were over, has papered over the sense that this week's route towards Madrid precedes another journey into the unknown in the months ahead. From Roberto Mancini's deliberately planned expression of interest in Fernando Torres yesterday morning – no sign at the Vicente Calderon of Torres, who preferred recuperation in Barcelona to a journey in support of his side last night – to Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks' admission yesterday that he is struggling to sell the Texas Rangers, with the knock-on that has for immediate cash flow, the signposts point to a summer as difficult as the last for Benitez, L4's self-styled transfer market "wheeler dealer."
The club might be sold in six months, say those in the boardroom who are seeking a buyer to release cash, but that's an aspiration, not a promise, and the engagement of Barclays Capital and a new executive chairman, Martin Broughton, to find a purchaser has not made the discovery of one any more likely. Which goes some way to explaining why Benitez was deferential, not dismissive, when Real Madrid's potential interest in him was mentioned by a Spanish journalist earlier this week and why, when last night's match finally swung into action, Liverpool looked like a side who had sustained jet lag without enjoying much time on a jet.
Diego Forlan's ninth-minute comedy goal was one more reason for Manchester United fans to delight in Liverpool's current fate. The slapstick manner in which the Argentine missed the cross he was fed by Jose Manuel Jurado could have taken United back to any Saturday afternoon at Old Trafford circa 2003 – except that the Premier League defences United were facing in those days would have gratefully accepted the ball he had stumbled over and cleared it. Sotirios Kyrgiakos afforded Forlan time enough to clamber to his feet, reassess his target and poke in the shot which Jamie Carragher, scurrying back to make good after covering for Glen Johnson, could only follow into the net.
It was a chaotic but characteristic spectacle for those who have followed Liverpool on their many abject travels this season. When Forlan was offered another clear-cut shooting chance before the hour, he sliced it again, amazed to have received the gift. The Argentine's most purposeful intervention of the night was to remove a mobile phone thrown on to the pitch.
The size of Steven Gerrard's contribution revealed that someone in black and gold had a heart for it, though David Ngog did nothing in his time on the field to suggest that ball control is something they teach at Clairefontaine, while Ryan Babel, who arrived in his stead, was as frustrating as he has been this season. Jose Antonio Reyes was the best player on the pitch; Liverpool have Pepe Reina to thank that they have escaped so lightly.
The result was an acceptable one and a Hamburg final still beckons, but the sense that it could be Benitez's finale is felt no less. History tells us , after all, that success in this competition can be an end rather than a beginning. It was after Benitez's Valencia side defeated Marseilles in the Gothenburg final of 2004 that he looked around the dressing room and weighed up the players he had and those the club was offering to sign for him. "I asked for a table and they bought me a lampshade," he famously said – and within a month or so he was off to Merseyside.
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