While it should be cause for worry for Rafael Benitez that he seems to be losing the affections of Liverpool supporters, surely of more concern to the Spaniard must be the worry that he is losing his power over the playing staff. The two are related, but the belief of the fans will not return unless Rafa can reassert control over his players.
A fourth defeat in a row has put the Spaniard’s tenure seriously at risk. A fifth on Sunday against champions Manchester United could land the final, critical blow. It is not hard to imagine the wry smiles of the clubs’ American owners at this turn of events.
Benitez’s relationship with Gillet and Hicks has hardly ever been better than strained – but the affection with which Koppites held the Spaniard often seemed to be the main barrier to the American’s showing him the door.
Oh, that and the fact that sacking Benitez would put yet another hole in the club’s precarious finances. But now that the tide seems to be turning amongst many fans, it is not inconceivable that Rafa might walk – earning no compensation, much to the delight of the warring owners.
While Benitez certainly seems to have lost his way – quality alternatives are not exactly plentiful. Reds fans may be better served counting slowly to ten and then contemplating the situation very carefully. There are three critical questions they should consider before making their minds up.
Firstly, as hinted at above – who should replace Benitez? And even if certain figures in the game come to mind, could Liverpool actually go out and get them?
Secondly, if the club did identify a quality target – say Jose Mourinho for the sake of argument – would any such candidate really want to work under the conditions that have plagued Benitez’s tenure over the last few seasons?
One owner or chairman can be bad enough, so two, hardly on speaking terms, with seemingly differing visions of the club and its future, is hardly an attractive prospect to top bracket managers.
Given Mourinho’s experiences with the meddling Roman Abramovich, would he seriously contemplate the Liverpool job under the current ownership structure and financial restrictions? The same applies to any of the candidates Liverpool fans might hope to see at the helm.
The third question focuses on Benitez himself. Has he earned the right to turn things around? The manner of defeat in at least three of the four recent defeats (Chelsea being the exception) have shown up the serious deficiencies in Liverpool’s squad.
Of equal concern must be the fact that after the abject display in Florence and Benitez’s assurances that such a display would not be seen again, Liverpool have performed more tamely and insipidly against Lyon last night and Sunderland at the weekend than at any time under his management.
The fact that displays have not improved appreciably and consistently may well suggest that Benitez is no longer able to influence or inspire his players. Put simply, the fear must be that he has lost the dressing room.
That said, Liverpool fans should not forget that Benitez’s body of work at the club and the fact that he steered the club to its first proper title challenge in many years just last season.
He has also made Liverpool one of the most feared sides in European competition during his tenure. Perspective is thus required. Sunday, already a key game, has just become a critical one. But a win for Liverpool, not beyond the realms of possibility, will put Liverpool only four points behind the champions and would go some way to restoring the Spaniard’s reputation in the dressing room and the stands.
So, for all the annoyance and frustration they are currently experiencing, Liverpool fans must be careful what they wish for. Do they really want to hear the words “Sammy Lee – caretaker manager” some day next week in the knowledge that Gillet and Hicks are heading up the search for a full time replacement for Rafael Benitez?