Belfast Telegraph

Liverpool's glory days are a distant memory

By Carl Markham

Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez will argue his strategy was going exactly to plan at Old Trafford until the intervention of referee Howard Webb but in truth the Merseysiders are nowhere near where they want - or need - to be.

A Fernando Torres goal inside the first five minutes was exactly what the Spaniard would have wanted and may even briefly have raised hopes of last year's 4-1 win at the home of Manchester United.

Those dreams evaporated within five minutes when Webb pointed to the spot for Javier Mascherano's foul on Park Ji-sung, even though initial contact had been outside the area.

It was downhill from that point for Liverpool and the 2-1 defeat once again leaves Benitez poring over what might have been.

His side are now four points adrift of fourth-placed Tottenham, having played one match more, with rivals Manchester City and Aston Villa also having games in hand on them.

Champions League football next season looks a long way off at the moment and Benitez's December 'guarantee' of fourth place is sounding increasingly hollow by the week.

As Liverpool warmed up at Old Trafford their shorts and socks looked more faded yellow than gold - a pertinent metaphor for the club's current status having dominated English football two decades ago.

That 4-1 Old Trafford victory was only 53 weeks ago but on the basis of this performance it could have been from a different generation.

At the time the win, the middle one of three in succession against United, raised expectations that Liverpool would finally end their 19-year championship drought.

It did not as the Reds finished a close second to United even though that game was one of nine victories in the last unbeaten 10 matches of the season.

But that result and subsequent runner-up finish was supposed to be the springboard for a renewed and sustained title bid.

Those hopes were virtually dashed by the second week of the season as Liverpool had lost two of their first three fixtures - as many as they had done in the whole of the previous campaign.

Things have not improved much since as, after early exits from the Champions League and FA Cup, the Reds are still playing catch-up but now it is only for fourth and not first place.

Pressure will grow now on Benitez but even if he does survive beyond the summer the Spaniard's hands are tied.

Co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett are not the generous benefactors who will hand their manager a transfer kitty to bring in the five quality players star striker Torres claims they need to persuade him he has a long-term future at Anfield.

Without Champions League football another income stream is diminished and the quest for outside investment has still to come to fruition.

It leaves Liverpool in no man's land - where they have been for most of this season - with no light at the end of the tunnel.

There may yet be time for the players to turn things around in the remainder of the season but that will only paper over the cracks for so long.

Their performance against United from the moment they conceded the equaliser, and even more so when they went behind, showed they currently do not have the quality to turn the big matches.

Not like they famously did in the 2005 Champions League final, which tellingly remains Benitez's greatest achievement at the club in his first season in charge.

Despite nearly six years at the helm and a couple of hundred million on transfers Liverpool are no closer to winning the title than when the Spaniard took over.

And for a club the size of Liverpool that has to change. Whether Benitez is around to effect it remains to be seen.

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