Liverpool in need of another rant from Benitez
If football were a neat and tidy business, it would be tempting to say that the beginning of the end for Rafael Benitez began on this self-same Friday last year.
It was January 9, the afternoon before his side visited Stoke City — as they do once again tomorrow — when the Liverpool manager took a piece of A4 paper from his jacket pocket and began a calm character assassination of Sir Alex Ferguson.
Liverpool managed only a 0-0 draw at the Britannia Stadium the next day, Manchester United subsequently beat Chelsea 3-0 and the Stretford End suddenly had a memorable new chant.
Except Rafa was not cracking up, as Old Trafford so memorably claimed in the days to follow. Liverpool's record in the 18 games which followed ‘Rafa's rant’ was — played 18, won 12, drew five, lost one.
That's a solitary league defeat at Middlesbrough in the entire remainder of a season which was punctuated by the thrilling 4-0 defeat of Real Madrid at Anfield and the most devastating defeat of Manchester United on Stretford soil for years.
Untidy though it may seem to those seeking to extract easy conclusions from the chaos of Liverpool and their latest cup exit — against Reading — they were the most formidable team on the continent last Spring.
Not much has changed in personnel since then. Consider the side Benitez fielded last March for the imperious 5-0 home win over Aston Villa — a club who so nearly beat United in their next league match — made them appear to be champions elect. Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Skrtel, Aurelio, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt, Riera, Torres. Only Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso have since gone.
But one of the bywords for success in sport is momentum. Liverpool have lost it and vanished from the place they occupied. The downfall has been shockingly abrupt and the seeds of it are actually to be found back at the stadium where Liverpool travel to again tomorrow.
The goalless draw at the Britannia, when Steven Gerrard came a lick of paint's width from scoring a winner, belonged to the pattern of draws against the Premier League's poor relations which persuaded Benitez that things must change things if Liverpool were to take the final step and assume United's crown.
It was his typical statitician's logic — had Gerrard scored at Stoke and Everton's Tim Cahill not netted three minutes from time at Anfield six days later, Liverpool would have matched United's points tally and lifted the title on goal difference.
Now Benitez is in a dreadful place, yesterday's triple injury blow — Torres, Gerrard and Benayoun — compounding the sense that Liverpool may drift into mid-table in the weeks ahead. Gerrard won't be playing in Stoke but a goal or two for Liverpool will demonstrate that they have gained some new powers in a season where the winning formula has been lost without trace.