A miserable, rainy Friday lunchtime in Liverpool and Steven Gerrard screeches out of Melwood training ground in one of those four-wheel-drives that are the scourge of Ken Livingstone and environmentalists everywhere. By the gates, a gaggle of sodden autograph hunters spot their man and stretch out their pens full of hope. But Gerrard isn't aware of them, his mobile phone is ringing and he presses it against his ear. "The cheeky bastard," says one of the throng. "Abramovich could have waited till Stevie had got out the chuffing car park."
His mates giggle before turning their attentions to their next prey, but their laughter is tinged with an air of resigned sadness. Because everyone in Liverpool believes Gerrard is going, "a done deal", and that it's only a question of time until yet another favourite son leaves their haven that should really be a home for life and, for the immortals, beyond. They just hope they will get the most out of him while he's still around, starting with Newcastle at Anfield today.
Except, it's not quite true to say that everyone in Liverpool is so convinced of the impending departure. Rafael Benitez certainly isn't and as the manager who holds great stock in Gerrard's honesty, perhaps the fans for whom cynicism has replaced absolute faith should listen. "I sat with him at our Christmas lunch this week and I say to him I am sure you want to stay here and win titles. And the question is that if you want to win titles here, we need your help to do it. From what Steve said to me I really believe he wants to stay."
But wasn't it something "Steve said" a few weeks ago that kicked off this frenzy of Red paranoia, that the captain wasn't at all certain about his immediate future and even less positive about Liverpool's? "Listen, he's always positive. When you see a player training well you know that he's positive and then afterwards when he says things... well, I think he was just being honest and what it means is how he wants to win with this club. And we will try. Because with him it will be easier."
Not that Benitez was hailing Mary for Gerrard's confessional, anything but, as the last 10 days that have seen his side scrape through to the knockout stages of the Champions' League as well as losing to neighbours Everton and dropping more points to Portsmouth on Tuesday, have been vexing enough. "He needs more experience with the media because it was not necessary," said the Spaniard. "I think that all the players here want to win titles with Liverpool, but the fact is it will be more difficult if you say these things. It was not the right moment."
But it was probably the right sentiment as Benitez acknowledged when all but admitting that Liverpool would not be collecting any meaningful silverware until they "repair the squad". "If you want to win games you need players. But if you want to win trophies you need a big squad," he said. "My idea is to have that here, not in terms of the number of players but the possibility of using them all.
"That is why Gerrard is so very, very important to us because he is the difference for us in many, many games. You saw it [against Portsmouth] when we had two or three opportunities but at the end we needed Gerrard for the goal. That's what I meant before. If you want to win games you need Gerrard. But if you want to win titles you need Gerrard and good players surrounding him. We will still need him to score. He's got six or seven goals this year, but I've told him he needs 12 to 15 if possible because he has the potential." This might be a strange "why-look-at-me" demand from a midfielder who is so often Liverpool's sole cutting edge, but it is a request that Gerrard probably has not taken personally, because Benitez has a way of dealing with players that is more Sir Cliff than Sir Alex. There is no throwing tea-cups across dressing rooms - indeed there is barely a clink of the chinaware - the former Valencia coach preferring to apply a rational approach to what he sees as a thoroughly rational game.
"My job is to analyse first and secondly to say something. I remember against Fulham when we went in 2-0 down, I thought then 'OK, I can say a lot of things, but it's more important that I actually do something'. So I brought on Xabi Alonso. I was going to do a similar thing against Portsmouth but then we scored. So now I needed to give the team a different thing. All the time you have to ponder how to change things or how to give your men confidence. Sometimes you do need to shout, but normally I prefer to think.
"The vital thing is to give the players the opportunity to work out how to do it themselves, not to have to explain it all the time. So you say in training, 'What if an opponent went here and another went there? What would you do?' It's better if they find the solutions because they're the ones in the situation."
If only Benitez could be as easy on himself. "That's my big problem - all the time thinking. After Tuesday I was driving my wife mad talking about the game. Not about the mistake [the Jerzy Dudek fumble that allowed Lomana LuaLua to equalise in stoppage time] but wondering if I'd done something bad. I feel that before I can say to the players 'Can you do more things?' I need to ask myself 'Can I do more things?' "
If that makes it sound like Benitez is feeling the heat then he swears he isn't. "All managers are under pressure whether here, Spain, Italy or Germany. It's a fantastic job but you must appreciate that supporters want more, the board want more, journalists want more. You must stay calm, because if you are afraid it will transmit to your players."
Nevertheless, the onus is on Benitez to produce, especially on days like this when "we are playing Newcastle, a fine team with great strikers who will be fighting it out with us to finish fourth". "Look, if we talk about giving me a year here to get it right it would be easier," he said. "But I don't want to wait one more year. I don't even want to wait one more weekend." Time is of the essence then. For Gerrard and Benitez both.Reuse content