Rafa Benitez's glass appears finally to be half-empty. As Liverpool return to domestic duty tomorrow not even their rousing dispatch of Benfica on Thursday night has raised the manager's hopes that their pursuit of fourth place in the Premier League will prove a successful chase. His squad, he fears, can not live up to what is expected at Anfield.
Their success in reaching the last four of the Europa League holds out the promise of ending an underwhelming campaign with silverware, but it would offer scant consolation for missing out on a place in next season's Champions League and the accompanying financial hit that would bring. Liverpool lie sixth this morning, four points behind Manchester City, who hold the coveted spot, having played a game more and Benitez admits it is a gap that his side will struggle to close with just five games remaining.
"If it is a question of 11 v 11 we can be as good as anyone when everyone is fit," he said. "But normally the problem is the squad and in our case the expectation. As soon as you cannot be so close to the top people are disappointed and you do not have the same energy, but in a normal game, we can beat anyone.
"The question this year has been consistency. It is very clear [that] you need a good, big squad and then you can manage. After one international break, we had [Glen] Johnson, [Sotirios] Kyrgiakos, [Fernando] Torres and [Steven] Gerrard injured, [Fabio] Aurelio at the beginning too. When you have too many problems with starting players you need a bigger squad. The other day you could see [Nicolas] Anelka played and his substitute was [Didier] Drogba, so that is a massive difference, and [on Wednesday, Wayne] Rooney played and [Dimitar] Berbatov, a £32m player, came on. The length of the squad is important, especially in the league."
As Benitez has been in charge at Anfield for six years, the squad is absolutely the Spaniard's creation. His concerns are valid, but they could also be said to be of his own making. It was he who spent £20m on Alberto Aquilani and £2m on Kyrgiakos in August and a combined £20m on Andrea Dossena, Albert Riera, Diego Cavalieri and David Ngog – and the same again on Robbie Keane – the summer before. His dissatisfaction with his lot will not be eased unless the club attract new investment before the summer. The July deadline to find £100m to reduce their level of debt hangs heavily over Liverpool. If they do not finish fourth, will Benitez even be there by then?
With one less game to play than the other three teams in contention for fourth – City, Tottenham and Aston Villa – Liverpool may need to win five out of five. "They are in a good position and if they lose it will be more through their fault," said Benitez of City and Spurs. In Liverpool's favour is that three of their remaining games are at Anfield, although one of those is against Chelsea, and the two on the road are at Burnley and Hull. Their home form has been formidable of late, and their opponents tomorrow, fellow English European survivors Fulham, have one of the worst away records in the league. Roy Hodgson's side have won once on the road this season, which is merely an extension of their dire away form. With just nine league wins away from Craven Cottage since 2005-6, they make Steve Harmison resemble a modern-day Magellan.
Since Liverpool's embarrassing FA Cup loss to Reading in January, they have won nine straight games at Anfield, and at the heart of that run has been one man. The clinical double against Benfica made it eight goals in the last four Anfield matches for Fernando Torres. Over the course of his three years in England, Torres has scored 49 times in 59 home games. His presence on the pitch will, as ever, be key. His withdrawal against Birmingham last weekend and Liverpool's subsequent failure to win left Benitez open to criticism but he stressed that he will continue to manage his compatriot's time on the field carefully.
"It is important he is not weary," said Benitez. "People say he cannot be tired because he has not played so many games, but if you play with 10 men for an hour and have to play again, everyone will be tired. If Torres is fit he can be very, very dangerous and he can score goals. He can make a difference like [against Benfica], when we tried to protect him, if we can manage him for the rest of the season."
Another of the Spanish contingent yesterday gave Benitez a fillip when Pepe Reina agreed a new six-year contract. The goalkeeper follows Torres, Gerrard, Dirk Kuyt, Daniel Agger and Yossi Benayoun in agreeing long-term deals over the last 12 months.
In the red: Rafa's costly flops
Bought last summer for £20m from Roma. The midfielder's susceptibility to injury has meant the Italian has started just five league games.
Joined the Red's in July 2008 from Spurs for £20m. Five league goals in 16 starts saw the Ireland captain sold back to Spurs six months later.
Arrived from Espanyol for £8m in September 2008. Suspended and transfer-listed after criticising Benitez, who he claimed was in charge of a "sinking ship''.
Cost £7m from Udinese in July 2008. The Italian played just 18 games before being sold to Napoli in January this year.
Benitez paid £11.5m in July 2007 for one of Ajax's brightest prospects. However, he has yet to fulfil his potential at the club.
Signed for £6m from Blackburn in June 2006. Lasted just one season, during which he attacked team-mate John Arne Riise with a golf club.
The Spaniard came to Anfield in January 2005 from Real Madrid for £6.3m. Despite his burgeoning reputation he managed just eight goals in 41 league games and was sold to Valencia after just 18 months on Merseyside. Greg Heffer