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Page last updated at 17:55 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Benitez sowed seeds of Liverpool demise

Jonathan Pearce
By Jonathan Pearce
BBC football commentator

Rafa Benitez sowed the seeds of Liverpool's self-destruction a year ago. On the eve of their first league game of 2009, away at Stoke, Rafa's rant lit the touch paper to implosion.

Now, just before their first Premier game of another New Year, again at Stoke, the club that once dominated Europe is in meltdown.

Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez
All managers err in the market, but mistakes seem to be haunting the beleaguered Spaniard

What passed for a Liverpool side in the latter stages of Wednesday's FA Cup shambles was an insult to the great players who have worn the famous Liver bird club badge, Anfield's dynasty of managerial legends and all those who have scrimped and saved to follow them over the years.

Liverpool went to Stoke last January four points clear of Chelsea at the top and seven ahead of Manchester United. They had lost only twice in 31 games and were still in the Champions League and FA Cup.

Why did Benitez choose that time to launch his astonishing tirade against Sir Alex Ferguson? Why openly show any concern about United when things were going so well?

The rant was followed by four draws in a row and, though Liverpool were to end the season in thrilling fashion, the outburst changed the course of the season.

Following the vitriol aimed at their manager, United's players embarked on a nine-match winning run just as Liverpool's insecurities seeped into the open. United lapped it up.

If this campaign needed to build on last season's challenge, it has been a disaster. To some degree, ill fortune has dogged Benitez, but mistakes have also been made and they they can no longer be swept under the carpet.

The manager has had to cope with a spiteful American civil war in the boardroom that has been deeply damaging to Liverpool FC on all levels.

Any manager would have been frustrated by the ensuing financial restrictions, but at times he has used the dispute between George Gillett and Tom Hicks to camouflage underachievement on the pitch.

Long-term injuries for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are not Rafa's fault either, but other title contenders have dealt with the loss of key individuals.

The world's top player left Manchester United and they are still competing for a treble, while Arsenal have been without Robin van Persie for two months and Cesc Fabregas, on and off, for weeks, yet they are still fighting for honours on three fronts.


The body language of the club's top two stars also speaks volumes about Liverpool's plight. Torres is playing as if he wants to be somewhere else and the captain looks distraught.

There's also no doubt that the side has become over reliant on the pair. Robbie Keane was too easily dismissed as a pawn in the power battle between Benitez and outgoing chief executive Rick Parry, while Peter Crouch has still to be adequately replaced.

Both transfers brought the club profit, but the pair would have been real assets this season. Andriy Voronin was a disaster and David Ngog is a boy playing in a team that is suffering - his scuffed miss against Reading highlighting a lack of confidence.

The decision to keep playing Emiliano Insua has also backfired. He's played too much football in a stressed-out side. On Wednesday, he looked shot. The 21-year-old Argentine needs a rest.

Overall, the quality of Liverpool's young players doesn't compare with that of Arsenal's. The failings of the academy were not initially the fault of Benitez, but, after making radical changes to its set-up, he now must take full responsibility.

All managers err in the market, but mistakes seem to be haunting the beleaguered Spaniard. The sale of Xabi Alonso was a massive error. Liverpool challenged last season because Alonso played almost twice the number of games that he did in 2007/8. He controlled their rhythm.

Alberto Aquilani was immediately pressurised as Alonso's direct replacement because of his lengthy injury. But on the evidence of his opening 10 appearances, he is poor value at £20m. Against Reading, he tackled like a wet lettuce and gave the ball away too cheaply late on.

Alberto Aquilani
Aquilani has struggled to settle at Liverpool since returning from injury

Surely the dependable Sami Hyypia could have been kept for another year, with the Reds losing only two of the 18 games he played in last season. Sotirios Kyrgiakos at £2m looks an expensive stopgap who is out of his depth.

The club will struggle to recoup the money they laid out for him or others, like Ryan Babel and Lucas Leiva, who arrived with big price tags but have failed to have a lasting impact.

In five-and-a-half years, there has been a turnover of nearly 120 transfers at a net spend of over £85m. There has been too little progress since the Champions League success for that kind of outlay, and Wednesday night's home defeat by Reading left a once-great club floundering in deep distress.

Only a remarkable run of victories will now relieve the pressure, and the Britannia Stadium, where Stoke will be in Liverpool's faces throughout, is not the best launch pad for a rescue mission.

It is difficult to see how the club will keep faith with Benitez if the slump continues, despite the financial burden that a pay-off would bring.

His defiant but baffling repetitive interview technique reminds me of the final press conferences of Gerard Houllier's reign when the Frenchman kept repeating a mantra about "turning corners".

The mantra was hollow. He had reached the point that all managers eventually hit when obstacles mount ever higher and the physical and mental energy needed to clear them just isn't there any more; when players and supporters need a change; when the future of a football club becomes more important than any individual.

Reading match winner Shane Long might have taken Benitez to that point and the end of a sad journey that began a year ago.

Jonathan Pearce will commentate on Stoke City v Liverpool for Match of the Day on Saturday. The programme will broadcast on BBC One and online at 2230 GMT.

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see also
Benitez feels sorry for Reds fans
15 Jan 10 |  Liverpool
Liverpool 1-2 Reading (aet)
13 Jan 10 |  FA Cup
Reds say Benitez will not be axed
25 Nov 09 |  Liverpool
Benitez signs long-term Reds deal
18 Mar 09 |  Liverpool
Benitez lays into rival Ferguson
09 Jan 09 |  Premier League
Rafael Benitez statement
09 Jan 09 |  Liverpool

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