Life's not been a beach, nor even a ball, for Rafael Benitez over the past three days but he has found encouragement in improbable places.
The five fans who walked up to him in a superstore, thrust out their hands and didn't complain, as the Kop had on Tuesday night, about him removing Yossi Benayoun against Lyons contributed to his belief that Liverpool might be short of Manchester United's millions but have better supporters.
"We know there is a massive difference in money but we have better fans [than United] so I am really pleased," he said yesterday, an observation which will not endear Benitez to those United supporters who characterise him as "the Spanish waiter".
This was not a cheap hit, though. Both Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson ducked any chance to throw mud at each other yesterday – "I will not talk about what he is talking about," Benitez said when Ferguson's discussion of the combustible nature of United's annual visit to Anfield came up – and the Liverpool manager, for whom Steven Gerrard is 50-50 to shake off a groin injury and play, was actually invoking the extraordinary history of support from Reds fans for their managers. It is a loyalty apparently undimmed by the prospect of Liverpool losing five successive games for the first time in 56 years if Ferguson's side defeat them tomorrow.
When a thread, entitled "Rafa out: Please Support" appeared on a prominent Liverpool fans' website, few dignified it with a reply and one of the few printable responses was: "This thread is some well needed comic relief."
Typical Benitez that, while the words of Johan Cruyff are emblazoned on the wall of the media suite where he talks each Friday – "There's not one club in the world so united with the fans. That's something not many teams have. For that I admire Liverpool more than anything". It invoked a quotation Benitez had seen from Igor Biscan, one of Gérard Houllier's more forgettable signings: "He said if you work hard you know the fans will be behind you whether you make mistakes or not."
Liverpool most certainly have made mistakes in the transfer market and perhaps none more so than not moving quickly to bring Michael Owen home this summer. Ferguson insisted yesterday that Owen only had eyes for United – "There was no negotiation. He was desperate to come. It was so simple" – yet Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are believed to have been keen for Benitez to buy him back and the suspicion is that Liverpool were too slow to get the back-up for Fernando Torres they now so palpably need.
Benitez was asked did he have regrets and he did not say no. "It's not my decision, it's his decision. I have a lot of good players before in my squad and I have a lot of good players now," he said. "I was just working with the players I have."
Neither did Benitez reject the suggestion that Liverpool's struggles to keep pace with United was a result of years of being beaten to the punch, for Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and John O'Shea, who was on the club's books.
Benitez's determination not to reiterate his frustrations about the business side of the club was tested but he alluded again to his deep conviction that Liverpool have a chasm to bridge. "Before an important game like this, it's not exactly the time to talk about [missed opportunities to buy]," Benitez said. "But since the Premier League has existed you see a big difference [with United] in terms of money, marketing, a lot of things. In the last five years there's been a big difference."
For all that, Liverpool have reason to believe that they can reduce United's lead on them to four points rather than see it extended to 10. Two wins over the old enemy last season, including the 2-1 Anfield victory without Gerrard or Torres, who is expected to play, see to that. And though Benitez still appears to be in enough trouble to justify Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's ambassador, yesterday issuing a public declaration of support for him – "There's no way Liverpool Football Club and the majority of people would want Rafa to go anywhere," the Anfield legend said – this does seem to be a time for a dose of proper perspective.
Tomorrow is the Spaniard's 200th league game as manager and his record in that time surpasses every other Liverpool manager of modern times bar Dalglish. While Benitez has won 113 of his 199 games – a 58.6 per cent success rate, Bill Shankly achieved 106 of 200 (53 per cent) and Houllier 101 (50.5 per cent). Ferguson's 87 wins (43.5 per cent) are a reflection of his six initial years of toil at Old Trafford. "The numbers are not bad," Benitez said.
The protests at Anfield tomorrow will be directed at the club's American owners, not the manager, and the best he can hope for is that new proprietors might be around the corner with money. For now, the challenge is how to deal with all those ideas the local citizens have for him.
"The supporters are really important but at the end of the day you have too many," Benitez said. "You have 60 million supporters here in England – 60 million managers – so you can't listen to everyone. When a big country loves football they are passionate. Everybody has an opinion and everybody is right - after the game."
On one issue he will have the last word though. After the debacle of Darren Bent's goal at Sunderland, Benitez has issued a dictat: no beach balls are to be brought through the turnstiles tomorrow.
Taking the Kop: How United prosper at Anfield
Liverpool have lost 46 home games at Anfield in the Premier League, and tomorrow's opponents, Manchester United, are the most successful visitors, prevailing nine times in 17 trips to the red half of Merseyside.
*Premier league wins at Anfield
9 Manchester United (in 17 games)
4 Aston Villa (18)
3 Leicester City (8), Leeds United (12), Arsenal (17), Chelsea (17)
2 Ipswich Town (5), Coventry City (9), Southampton (13), Everton (17)
13 clubs have won once
*Fergie's wins at Anfield
Sir Alex Ferguson has enjoyed some memorable league trips to Anfield. Victory in 1993 helped push United toward a first title in 26 years, while five of the following eight wins came in seasons when they lifted the trophy.
6 Mar 1993: Liverpool 1 Man United 2
19 Apr 1997: Liverpool 1 Man United 3
6 Dec 1997: Liverpool 1 Man United 3
11 Sep 1999: Liverpool 2 Man United 3
1 Dec 2002: Liverpool 1 Man United 2
9 Nov 2003: Liverpool 1 Man United 2
15 Jan 2005: Liverpool 0 Man United 1
3 Mar 2007: Liverpool 0 Man United 1
16 Dec 2007: Liverpool 0 Man United 1Reuse content