The Nick Townsend column: Failures on home front mean Rafa should still go

Liverpool may end up ruling Europe again this season but their underachieving manager must be judged on domestic strife
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The Independent Football

Friends of Rafa would, no doubt, define it as a visionary, tactical masterclass, centring on his introduction of Peter Crouch and exhortation of his men to exploit that vulnerable Internazionale left flank. They would also argue that Liverpool's two-goal triumph in the Champions' League at Anfield on Tuesday night was a vindication of his faith in the much-derided Dirk Kuyt. Those less charitable would condemn it as a failure of Liverpool to overcome 10 men for the majority of the contest, once Zinedine Zidane's arch-provocateur, former Everton defender Marco Materazzi, dismissed in the first half, had become the obliging dupe in Rafael Benitez's night of redemption.

What can be agreed upon is that the week has yielded us another couple of absorbing episodes in the reality show which continues to expose the intrigues within and outside the club for popular delectation; a situation which would have been unthinkable to the hierarchy and managers of the past.

Those of us who observe the Merseyside machinations from a respectable distance would contend that these last few days, in which a Barnsley chop in the FA Cup has been followed by the mastery of the Serie A champions elect from Milan, have encapsulated Liverpool's season. Which is this: in essence, they are far more equipped for the rigours of the long march to Moscow than the duties of domestic life.

In popular music terms, Tuesday had begun with Benitez borrowing Gloria Gaynor's divorcees' anthem I Will Survive, as one headline summed up his words. By Wednesday morning, it was more a case of that age-old classic, What a Difference A Day Makes.

Of course, the able, indeed likeable, Spaniard will survive. For now. One can say with confidence that his Liverpool tenure is not in immediate jeopardy, even if his "side" – and that is a many and varied, if not so splendid, thing in these days of mind-boggling rotation – somehow capitulate at the San Siro on 11 March. There's no No 2 to steer the ship home if the captain takes that shortest of walks at the end of a sword. No ready-made replacement, unless the Anfield hierarchy have their eyes on a certain fellow lurking relatively quietly, at least for him, in Lisbon; although one questions whether a summons to Jose Mourinho would be palatable.

One imagines that would be anathema to the Anfield crowd. Until they remind themselves that he has won two Premier League titles, which Benitez never has, or come near to. So, maybe they would learn to love him. But, even that being the case, why would the American owners, George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks, saddle themselves with the financial pain of compensation, to Benitez, and any incoming manager if, as presumed, they do proceed with a sell-out to Dubai International Capital – a scenario that will become all the more likely if Liverpool fail to claim a Champions' League place, with the accompanying financial bounty?

Benitez claims that relations with Gillett, at least, have been enhanced since his meeting with the American duo in December. But their investigation of Jürgen Klinsmann's availability scarcely encourages him to believe that he will become one of Anfield's old retainers, despite all his assurances that he can win more trophies. Only a second Champions' League final success, which logic decrees is an unlikely outcome, would persuade whoever is then entrusted with the executioner's lever to grant a stay, maintain his presence and capitalise on the momentum created.

Meanwhile, Benitez, like a valiant soldier, will continue proudly pinning his medals from battles overseas as he lines up on parade. Two finals in three years indeed make him an astute and resourceful manager in that particular theatre of conflict. Yet, it conveniently disregards the fact that, despite his 32 acquisitions, at a cost of £140m (some of it recouped by sales, although that includes his own purchases) he has been vanquished in some crucial local skirmishes in football's English civil wars. Only that 2006 FA Cup victory over West Ham ensures that his home trophy cabinet is not completely bare.

But it's his Champions' League record in which he places greatest store. No one would dispute the fact that Benitez is adept at handling a team to function at their optimum on that stage and he should not be denied due recognition, even though, for all the grand resonance of its title, we all know it's a money-creating misnomer, containing more also-rans than champions. And describing it as a league is almost a fraud. However, that's a debate for another day. The reality is that, until he gets it right on the home front, and there's absolutely no evidence of that, he will remain a man not so much waving as drowning in the sea of expectation that laps around Anfield. And let's be clear. It's not necessarily about securing that long elusive title. It's about being competitive throughout; not just squaring up to your rivals in the early months.

The bare statistics are that in his first season, Liverpool were 37 points behind champions Chelsea, the following year nine points adrift of Mourinho's men, and last season 21 points in Manchester United's wake. Before the start of play yesterday, they were closer to the clubs in danger of relegation than the leaders Arsenal. The real indignity, and it's quite conceivable, would be Everton claiming fourth place, and usurping Liverpool's place in next season's Champions' League.

The players can detect which way the wind is blowing. Old "Candid" Carragher himself conceded after the Barnsley débâcle that Liverpool "haven't been good enough". But the most significant post-match observation on Tuesday night was that of captain Steven Gerrard (left). Set up by the ITV interviewer to deliver that obligatory "we done it for the gaffer" line, what he actually said was: "I am pleased for Rafa, but really that was for the team, the fans, people upstairs, everyone connected with the club. It was a big win for us all, and it wouldn't be fair to single out any individual." Talk about damning with faint acknowledgement.

It's a capricious business, management, and Benitez would, no doubt, ask us to consider the recent fortunes of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. He would remind us that Arsène Wenger's men were humiliated by United in the FA Cup, and failed to establish a lead at home against Milan on Wednesday night; that Sir Alex Ferguson's team, prior to that FA Cup triumph over Arsenal, dropped five Premier League points in two games; and that Avram Grant's side let slip four League points, and only recorded a goal-less draw this week against Olympiakos.

Yet, the difference is that while that trio are poised to progress further in Europe – the fact that Arsenal did not concede an away goal to Milan may yet prove crucial – their Premier League form is so vastly superior as to embarrass Liverpool.

You just never know under which identity Liverpool will turn up. Except that they have a better make-up for Europe. For half a match, against Inter in midweek, Liverpool looked just about the finished work their architect had designed. But that has been too rare a phenomenon this season.

Benitez, after all his time here, still appears to be vexed by the concept of a League in which a certain continuity of team selection is demanded. It lacks the necessary rhythm and conviction, even at home, where Liverpool have drawn far too many games. There's only so many times he can mitigate another failure to garner League points and remind us that "in football, you have to take your chances". Only so many times he can show us that medal.