Crunch time for Benitez as pressure increases

Click to follow
The Independent Online

After Liverpool's worst week since he succeeded Gérard Houllier as manager, Rafael Benitez yesterday faced up to a four-day period that could make or break his first season by counselling patience and reminding the team's detractors to focus on "the bigger picture".

After Liverpool's worst week since he succeeded Gérard Houllier as manager, Rafael Benitez yesterday faced up to a four-day period that could make or break his first season by counselling patience and reminding the team's detractors to focus on "the bigger picture".

Single-goal setbacks at home to Manchester United in the Premiership and at Burnley in the FA Cup, both caused by calamitous mistakes, have ensured that Benitez's methods will come under intense scrutiny from supporters and the media when Liverpool visit Southampton today and Watford on Tuesday in the second leg of a finely balanced Carling Cup semi-final.

But if the former Valencia coach feels under pressure, he did not show it as he met the press before leaving for St Mary's Stadium, where defeat could leave Liverpool 10 points behind Everton in the fight for the fourth Champions' League place. Asked whether he thought his senior players could have performed better in an under-strength line-up at Burnley - as claimed by many Liverpool fans on local-radio phone-ins and internet message boards - a relaxed-looking Benitez argued that it was "always difficult" when opponents "played at 100 per cent".

He came closest to admitting he had under-estimated the strength of the Championship team when recalling that Liverpool had prevailed with a comparable side at Tottenham in the Carling Cup. "If you played there with a similar team and won, you think you can do the same," Benitez said. Later he conceded: "We were all thinking perhaps we would win this game, and the supporters had the same idea."

The Spaniard pointed out that 12 players were unavailable at Turf Moor, including the recent signings Fernando Morientes and Mauricio Pellegrino. "The very top teams have maybe 20 to 22 very good, expensive players of the same standard. You need a big squad to go for a top-four place, compete in the Champions' League and win the FA and Carling Cups. That's not our situation. We need to decide our best side for each game."

Liverpool, added Benitez, do not have the sort of funds available to some of the clubs above them, yet he maintained that by striking some "imaginative" deals he was "building a good team for the future without spending a lot". He cited the £750,000 acquisition of the England Under-21 goalkeeper, Scott Carson, as evidence of his strategy. The former Leeds United player, 19, will go straight on to the bench as understudy to Jerzy Dudek at Southampton.

"We have the future under control," Benitez assured radio interviewers, while of course the past is littered with honours. That just leaves the tricky problem of the present, a point he addressed, paradoxically, by reiterating his optimism for the longer run. "We are not thinking only about one game, but about the bigger picture," he said, reversing the old maxim about taking each match as it comes. "When I decided to come here it was because Liverpool are a big club with a clear idea about their future. They said to me: 'We want to win trophies, if not tomorrow then as soon as possible'."

The player whose presence invariably gives Liverpool a psychological fillip, Steven Gerrard, is likely to be absent again today. Benitez is keen avoid aggravating his captain's thigh-muscle injury by rushing him back. "If we had played him at Burnley, we might have lost him for a month," he said. Not "losing" Gerrard permanently, to Chelsea or Real Madrid, may occupy a sizeable part of the manager's summer. In the immediate term, the priority is the simple one of keeping the domestic season alive.

Comments