Friday, 7 May 2010
The Writing's On The Wall
As the sun sets on a woeful season at Anfield, many Liverpool fans would be forgiven for wanting to see the back of a manager whose sole CV highlight for the past five years is one implausible achievement in Istanbul, capitalised, underlined and printed in size 72 font. But on Merseyside, they don't and it's perplexing. That Rafael Benitez also got Liverpool to another Champions League final two years’ later, won an FA Cup or finished second last season within this timeframe does not and should not cloud the matter that the Spaniard has had ample time and funds to forge a regular, title-challenging squad. Seventh, if that be where Liverpool ultimately finish this season, is just not good enough for a side that contains the talents of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano, Glen Johnson and Jamie Carragher.
We’ve heard it all before: “We cannot compete with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea in terms of spending power,” Benitez says. Just recently he has backed the claims of Reina and Torres that Liverpool need to acquire ‘four or five’ top class players in order to mount the sort of challenge we saw last season on a regular basis. The concerns therein, however, are plentiful: Hicks and Gillett have put a premium price on the club’s head, making the prospect of a white knight arriving through the Shankley Gates an unlikely outcome any time in the near future. On top of this, Liverpool are not in the Champions League. It is safe to assume that Gerrard and Torres would through gritted teeth assert they are happy settling for a season in Europe’s poor relation cup competition. Problems arise too over the future of these two; should they stick or twist, especially if, say, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Inter or Barca come a knocking? And then there is the not-so-small matter of whether Benitez is the best man to distribute the war chest should he get his wish. Which four or five top class players would want to go to a club that is devoid of Champions League football and possibly shorn of its marquee talents? On the one hand, he has brought in undeniably good signings in the shape of Reina, Agger, Mascherano, Torres, Alonso. But for each of these there is a Ryan Babel, an Andrea Dossena, a Lucas, a David Ngog, a… ok, you know the rest.
Fundamentally, the matter boils down to this final point. Benitez will argue until he is blue in the face that he has done his best with limited resources. This is simply a preposterous statement. Barring Carragher and Gerrard, every member of his squad is there at his behest. And so when Benitez calls attention to the fact that he had to bring on the likes of Phillipe Degen and Nabil El Zhar off the bench in the Europa League semi final against Atletico Madrid, he merely calls attention to his own shortcomings in the transfer market.
The Premier League is genuinely on the cusp of a sea change right now. Spurs have been very good value for their fourth place and Harry Redknapp has a very able squad at his disposal, a squad expected to be enhanced by the likes of Joe Cole and Stephen Pienaar in the summer. Add to that the rebuilding jobs that will take place at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and the Emirates, not to mention the silly money that Man City will throw around, and there is a very real chance that Liverpool could slip into a coma of mediocrity.
The fall this season has been nothing short of spectacular for Liverpool. And it was chiefly as a result of Benitez’s profligacy in the transfer market. If the club is to quickly drag itself back into the top four then it needs to dispense with Benitez, a man who appears to have lost the dressing room and cannot admit his failings. Clubs on the continent will be queuing up for Benitez in the summer months. For a fallen giant such as Juventus, the aforementioned CV highlight seems to have proven too irresistible to ignore. This should be a blessing for Liverpool. No need therefore to fork out £20m on tearing up Benitez’s contract when he can do that himself for nothing.
The candidates for the Anfield vacancy don’t exactly stand out right now. There has been talk of Kenny Dalglish but he’s not had a managerial role since his ill fated stint at Celtic, 10 years ago. Jose Mourinho surely would only offer the position a cursory glance before turning his back and swanning off to Real Madrid. There is Guus Hiddink, linked heavily in January, but now installed at Turkey boss and therefore out of bounds until at least July. So where does this leave Liverpool? Appoint someone with Premier League experience such as Martin O’Neill or Roy Hodgson who could bring back much-needed stability to the club and who understand the rigours of the English top flight? Decisions, decisions.
Of course, Liverpool do not have an inherent right to be in the Champions League year-on-year. Certainly not when this season’s mostly abysmal form is considered. Surely now Benitez’s time has come. He is too stubborn to admit his mistakes (why spend £20m on an injured Alberto Aquilani when Wesley Sneijder was available for the same price, for instance? Prior to that, why sell Robbie Keane in January when you are top of the league, leaving you with no back up for Torres?). His man management skills, as witnessed by his treatment of Xabi Alonso and reinforced by Albert Riera’s comments earlier in the year, leave a lot to be desired. Some of his substitutions this season have been perplexing, Torres off at Birmingham anyone? And the wilting, pathetic performance against Chelsea was surely the final nail in the coffin: No heart. No creativity. No back-up plan. Symptomatic of so many limp performances during a season to forget.
For the amazing night at Instanbul, Liverpool fans are eternally grateful. But Benitez needs to leave now with his dignity intact rather than risk staying and overseeing a calamitous fall from grace that could set the club back decades. Adam Bushby