The way Rafa BenitÃ©z’s season is going, Liverpool will probably beat Chelsea on Sunday afternoon and hand the Premier League title to Manchester United. Despite his side producing a barnstorming display to defeat Athletico Madrid 2-1 after extra time at a packed Anfield last night, the result wasn’t enough to warrant a Europa League final berth.
Athletico went through 2-2 on aggregate thanks to Diego ForlÃ¡n’s (former Manchester United striker – the signs are ominous) extra-time strike after Aquilani and Benayoun efforts had put Liverpool 2-1 ahead on the night.
Worse still, another English Premier League side, Fulham, whose transfer budget and turnover is a fraction of Liverpool’s will provide the opposition in the final on May 12 in Hamburg.
Devoid of the attacking genius of an injured Fernando Torres, Liverpool were already facing an uphill battle to overturn a 1-0 deficit heading into the second leg. The return of Kuyt was welcome but yet again BenitÃ©z tinkered with his starting line-up by deploying Glen Johnson at left back, moving Javier Mascherano to right back and recalling Daniel Agger to centre-back.
Those changes had the desired effect for much of the tie but a tiring Liverpool defence was still at fault for allowing ForlÃ¡n the freedom of Liverpool to tap in a crucial away goal and effectively seal passage to the Europa League decider.
In fairness to Liverpool they gave it everything they had out on the pitch for their manager and their fans last night. You couldn’t criticise them for effort but the problem is too often this season the effort hasn’t been sustained for a full ninety minutes and subsequently points have been dropped.
So what next? On the off-chance Liverpool manage to sneak into the coveted fourth Champions League qualifying spot, that may still not be enough for Rafa BenitÃ©z to stay another season. The Spaniard has been coy about his future in recent media interviews preferring instead to concentrate on his side’s next match rather than talk about rumours of his departure.
“The future is Chelsea now, then Hull” was his not so cryptic response to questions about continuing his tenure as manager at Anfield last night.
Juventus have been heavily linked with the current Anfield manager for some time and reports that the \’Grand Old Lady’ is set to spend big in the summer could finally entice BenitÃ©z away. Juventus would represent a similar test to that when he took over at Liverpool: a new challenge in a new country with a club who are desperate to return to the top table of European football.
It is obvious that Liverpool requires major rebuilding in the coming months if they are to have any chance of challenging for the Premier League title next year. Current club owners, Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett have hardly endeared themselves to the Anfield manager with no new stadium (as originally promised) on the horizon, a reduced transfer budget and the club’s debt escalating by the day.
BenitÃ©z was forthright about what is required to bring the glory days back to Liverpool when he commented after last night’s Europa League encounter; “A few players have said we need three, four or five players this summer and I agree with them. This is what we need to do. It’s clear we had some problems tonight”.
Whatever about problems on the pitch, the fact BenitÃ©z could only call upon the likes of substitutes El Zahar and Pacheco says it all about the lack of in-depth quality in his squad.
Liverpool has not become a bad club overnight and the fact they are still in with a shout of fourth place is testament to the sides’ dogged determination to overcome what has been a turbulent season both on and off the pitch. Throughout the 2009-10 campaign BenitÃ©z has done the best with the raw material at his disposal but he must realise now that unless there is a serious injection of cash in the summer there is little more he can do to bring Liverpool forward.
That historic night in Istanbul seems a lifetime ago this morning and the time may be right for BenitÃ©z to finally part ways with his beloved Liverpool.
Ger McCarthy is author of the book entitled \’Off Centre Circle’, published by the Evening Echo, which chronicles the curious life of a West Cork amateur soccer player.