Tom Oldfield

The Champions League has served up some of Rafael Benitez’s finest moments as Liverpool manager. The astonishing and heroic final in Istanbul will live long in the memory, as will the gutsy run that saw the Reds return to the final in Athens two years later. There have been countless inspired European nights at Anfield over the past four or five seasons as the glory years have been revisited.

Now, though, the competition has turned on Benitez when it mattered most and when he least expected it. The Reds were billed as serious contenders again this year but Fiorentina’s 1-0 victory at home to Lyon means that the unthinkable has happened – Liverpool are out of the Champions League.

The premier European club competition had once been the Spaniard’s comfort zone, where he was king and everyone bowed to his tactical nous and flawless planning. He seemed more comfortable on European nights, as if he felt invincible under the intense spotlight. Decisions that defied logic at times paid off for Benitez and Liverpool rolled onwards. Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and countless others felt the force of a visit to Merseyside and he was hailed as a genius. He could do no wrong. The best manager in the world, some said. He certainly seemed to reserve his shrewdest decisions for the big stage.
And when times were tough domestically, he could always point to his Champions League achievements – two finals in three years, no less. As the Reds slipped behind Chelsea and then Manchester United in the title race, Benitez remained a powerful figure because he had conquered Europe. It was his safety net when his critics rounded on him. But not any more.

And so this setback will be especially hard to take. Benitez has been officially dethroned.

In truth, the whole campaign was sloppy and below-par from the start. Only beating Debrecen 1-0 at home in their opening game raised a few eyebrows and a 2-0 defeat in Florence confirmed fears over the team’s chances of reaching the last 16. Pointing to injuries suffered by Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres is a tired excuse but clearly that played a part in derailing the Reds and disrupting their rhythm. Unfortunately for Benitez, there were not enough players able to step up.
But it was taking just a single point from home and away matches with Lyon that did the major damage. Leading at Anfield, Liverpool faltered and the visitors took their chances to seize control of the group with a last gasp winner. That was the night when things officially entered crisis territory. In France, another late goal hurt Benitez’s side, just when they appeared to be producing another miraculous escape – on a par with their dramatic win over Olympiacos back in the 2004/05 season. There were simply too many errors and, for once in this competition, the Spaniard had no answers. He made some dubious selections and they failed to pay off. While Lyon and Fiorentina have unquestionably been the more consistent teams and have played some eye-catching football, the Liverpool players and management will know that they must take the bulk of the blame. Benitez admitted as much post-game.

Of course, the fact that Debrecen were such cannon fodder for the rest of the group did little to help. The Hungarians have lost all five of their group games and the smart money would be on them making it a full six out of six in the last set of fixtures. Their shortcomings meant Fiorentina and Lyon took maximum points again them and strengthened the impact of their victories over Liverpool.

Benitez will feel fate is even more against him when he casts an eye over Group F, where Inter have dropped nine points out of 15, with just one victory to their name, and yet still hold their destiny in their own hands heading into their last game. Liverpool have dropped eight points but they are goners.

So what next? Speculation continues to mount about the Spaniard’s future – and Champions League elimination has dealt him a hefty blow. Having fallen behind in the title race and having been dumped out of the Carling Cup by Arsenal, Liverpool’s trophy chances may have shrunk to just the FA Cup and the Europa League. There have been calls for his head from a portion of the fans and names like Guus Hiddink have already been thrown around as possible replacements, though it would be a surprise if the powers that be at Anfield acted just yet.

The growing feeling, however, is that Benitez is on borrowed time and, in due course, the downturn in European fortunes might be remembered as the setback from which he could never recover.

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