Tom Oldfield

Make no mistake about it, times are tough for Liverpool fans at the moment. A floundering title challenge is bad enough, with rivals Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal pulling away at the top of the table. But when you throw in a disastrous Champions League campaign on the brink of collapse, the extent of the misery becomes fully apparent.
While Liverpool cannot mathematically be written off in Europe just yet, their draw in Lyon puts the club on the brink of an embarrassing elimination. No English club has been dumped out of the competition in the group stage since Manchester United in 2005 but, barring a miracle, the Reds are heading for the Europa League. Their destiny is no longer in their own hands and, so long as the Fiorentina players keep their heads, the five-time champions are done for this season.
And, coupled with a poor Premier League campaign, understandably, Rafael Benitez is facing mounting pressure – more pressure than at any other point during his spell at the helm at Anfield. The glory of 2005 in Istanbul and the commendable return to the Champions League final two years later have bought the Spaniard breathing space in the past but they count for little in the team’s present predicament and Benitez is running out of time to prove he can lift the Premier League title or Champions League trophy with his current crop.
Liverpool arrived in France desperate for a win and thought their prayers had been answered when Ryan Babel fired them ahead with eight minutes left. But a late lapse at the back – typical of the Reds’ defending over the past two months – turned things on their head. It had all been a false dawn. Throw in a 2-2 draw with Birmingham City at Anfield, gained through a dubious penalty, and the voices of the Kop were clear: Not good enough.
Fingers have been pointed at Benitez – and with good reason. He has failed to learn the lessons of the past few years. Titles, both domestically and in Europe, are generally won by the teams with the strongest squads and the Spaniard has not equipped his squad well enough. Pointing to the frequent absences of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres is a tired excuse and one that merely highlights the lack of other sparks taking training at Melwood.
If Benitez could field his strongest eleven every week, Liverpool would take some stopping and they proved that during the last campaign with dominant wins over Real Madrid and Manchester United among numerous others. But football does not work in this way and it is inevitable that injuries and loss of form will occur at various stages of what is a lengthy fixture list. And it simply brings Benitez’s patchy record in the transfer market under closer scrutiny.
Nobody can question the signing of Torres. If anything, the striker was a bargain at around £20M and he continues to leave pundits and supporters lost for words. Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Dirk Kuyt and Javier Mascherano were all also shrewd signings. Aside from the ill-fated move for Robbie Keane, Benitez tends to get things right when he spends big money. Glen Johnson, at £18M, came with a hefty price tag but he too looks set to make a big splash at Anfield.
But the Spaniard has seriously struggled to pad out his squad with dependable role players and back-ups. A core of Reina, Jamie Carragher, Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres is world-beating yet finding top class full-backs and wingers has been problematic. A quality wide attacking addition is something the Reds have been struggling to find throughout the Spaniard’s tenure. Benitez has also come up short in his attempts to find a strike partner for Torres and a central defensive partner for Carragher.
Injuries to Daniel Agger, who has shown signs of developing into a quality centre-back, have been a setback to the Spaniard’s plans but moves for Andrea Dossena, Martin Skrtel and Sotirios Kyrgiakos have not strengthened the back four. Take Carragher out of the defence and there would be absolute chaos.
Then in midfield, Benitez has bought countless costly flops. Jermaine Pennant arrived at Anfield from Birmingham for a staggering fee of £6.7M and failed to produce the goods. Chilean winger Mark Gonzalez was equally disappointing and was soon shipped off to Real Betis while Lucas Leiva, despite some improved displays, is unlikely to make the grade at the heart of the midfield. There are fears that Albert Riera and new face Alberto Aquilani may soon join this undistinguished list.
And, of course, there have been transfer disasters in attack too. Not only was Keane a bizarre signing for £20M but Benitez has also raised eyebrows with deals for Craig Bellamy, Andriy Voronin and David N’Gog. The latter two are among the current squad and have put in the type of wasteful performances that must have enraged Kuyt, who remains stuck on the right flank. Then there is Ryan Babel. The Dutchman, who produced a rare moment of magic against Lyon, was billed as one of Europe’s most promising talents when he signed for the Reds in 2007 but he has been inconsistent and has seemingly never won his manager’s trust. At £11.5M he has been a luxury Liverpool can ill afford.
So Benitez has built a fine team but a limited squad. When he spends upwards of around £9M, he often finds a talented first team star but he has had very few successes in the region of £5M or less. And, therefore, he does not have the squad depth to compete with injuries and the pursuit of four trophies. As a result, the supporters are starting to lose faith – and some questionable substitutions at key points over the last few seasons have not helped.
The Reds are stuttering badly and it appears that they will have kissed good-bye to Premier League and Champions League glory before the turn of the year. For a club with Liverpool’s proud history, that is not good enough. Benitez’s transfer dealings have failed to bear fruit thus far and, with regularly Champions League football seemingly built in to the American owners business model he may have limited time to turn things around.

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