End of road looming at Liverpool for Rafa
Rafael Benitez has until the end of the season to save his job at Liverpool, with his chances of doing so further hampered by three crippling injury blows which raise doubts about his ability to secure Champions League football next season.
The Spaniard has no intention of quitting and despite Liverpool's shock FA Cup exit to Reading the club's owners do not plan to remove him at a time when they are seeking to convey a sense of stability to investors, during their sale of 25% equity to raise £100m.
Tom Hicks and George Gillett will revisit this summer the issue of whether Benitez can reverse the decline which has beset Liverpool, or whether they should lay out the £20m needed to dismiss him and look elsewhere. Jose Mourinho would seem like a candidate, though Liverpool's limited spending powers may be an impediment.
A more imminent change of manager cannot be entirely ruled out. If Liverpool continue to nosedive to a mid-table position from which European football is starting to look beyond them they may have to recruit. Failure to qualify for Europe's elite tournament will cost the club at least £10m. The prospect of club ambassador Kenny Dalglish, who is close to the managing director Christian Purslow, assuming control in a temporary capacity until the summer is one which would please many fans, but the Spaniard looks safe for now.
Benitez will have money from the sale of players at his disposal in the next few weeks and with his medium term future by no means guaranteed, he may feel more acutely the need to spend to make good the debilitating loss of Fernando Torres. The striker will be out for six weeks, while undergoing surgery on a torn cartilage in his right knee, sustained in the first minute of Wednesday's match. Yossi Benayoun also suffered a fractured rib in the game.
Benitez, who has secured a total of £6.4m from the sales of Andrea Dossena to Napoli and Andriy Voronin to Dynamo Moscow, will seek around £10.5m for Ryan Babel, but will only sell if he can find a better replacement. Realistically, Benitez may struggle to improve his options beyond the arrival of Maxi Rodriguez from Atletico Madrid, on a free transfer.
The timing of losing the club's two best players plus Benayoun, who showed signs of the form which made him such a force in the first half of the season, made yesterday a dark one indeed for Benitez. Torres, whom the club had been nursing through an inguinal hernia for weeks in the hope of avoiding surgery, will miss games against Arsenal and Manchester City which are crucial to the club's attempts to secure a top four place.
Steven Gerrard is also missing for a period during which Liverpool need to consolidate, with apparently more winnable fixtures against Stoke City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Bolton Wanderers, ahead of the Anfield derby clash with Everton which begins a period of more challenging fixtures. Torres will miss both the Europa League last 32 ties against Unirea Urziceni.
Though Liverpool were roundly booed from the field after their fifth FA Cup exit to lower league opposition in the space of 11 years, the view from fans' forums yesterday did not reflect unanimous opposition to Benitez continuing in his role. Around 70% of fans felt that a change was needed and that Benitez cannot now turn around a season which has left the side with only the Europa League to pursue.
Jamie Carragher apologised for Liverpool's performance against Reading. “We all like to win, but when you don't, you have to be a good loser,” he said.
“We have got to look at ourselves and the way we performed was not acceptable. We've got a massive game coming up against Stoke now on Saturday. It will be very tough, as we played extra-time and we have got to show enormous character to come back.
“That's what we have got to do. We have got to move on, but at the same time, we have to say sorry to the fans who came to Anfield.
“Whatever goes on behind the scenes, we have got to do our own job.”