Sunday, 21 March 2010
Following their deflating loss to old foe Manchester United, Liverpool teeter on the brink of being banished from the exclusive top four party.
Liverpool started the game at Old Trafford in explosive fashion, daring to take the lead after only 5 minutes of play, the first goal United have conceded at home since their loss to Aston Villa back in December last year. The goal was supplied by a Dirk Kuyt cross from the byline, which Fernando Torres leaped majestically to, burying his header unopposed. Such was the quality of the header, that current England captain Rio Ferdinand, and much rumored to be recalled as England right back, Gary Neville, both left Torres unmarked. Preferring, instead, to gaze in awe like a pair of adoring statues.
Any signs of continuing to be overwhelmed in admiration of Liverpool's attacking prowess were quickly suppressed only 6 minutes later, when Antonio Valencia was brought down just inside the box, by Mascherno who was very lucky not to receive his marching orders having being adjudged not to be the last man by World Cup referee Howard Webb. Mascherano was only given a yellow card for his indiscretion, which must have sparked memories of Vidic being dealt sterner punishment for a similar challenge on Torres in the corresponding fixture last year. The flash back had both Ferguson and Benitez arguing their case like a pair of cackling dinner ladies, with 4th official Andre Mariner deployed as the headmaster.
With 32 goals to his name already this season, Rooney predictably was tasked with penalty duty. And, such is the rich vain of form the England man is currently in, even after his penalty was initially saved, Reina could only parry straight back in to the path of Rooney, who made no mistake with his second bite of the cherry.
And from that point on, Liverpool never really looked like getting back in the game. United dominated possession, and Torres looked very isolated up front while Gerrard cut a forlorn figure in midfield. It was only a matter of time before United's possession paid off, albeit through a surprise match winner in Park.
Given that United had lost the last three fixtures against Liverpool, their supporters have often taken a philosophical stance, stating that while losing to Liverpool is always a bitter pill to swallow, winning the league more than heals the wound of local defeats.
For Liverpool, the instant gratification of the past, provided some scant relief to seeing their neighbours match Liverpool's 18 league titles. But right now, while local pride may be sore, its the bigger picture of having lost 10 league games throughout the campaign so far, that is far more damaging. Which, is subsequently making their ambitions of finishing fourth all the more insurmountable.
Benitez through his own will, has painted himself in to a corner, having earlier in the season "guaranteed" that Liverpool will be able to clinch 4th spot, and with it, the last place to the lucrative cash flow of Champions league money which is so desperately needed.
Liverpool have a decent set of fixtures ahead of them for the end of season run-in, but the problem now is that they are no longer in control of their own destinies. Even if they were to win all the remaining games left, they would have to rely on the other teams vying for fourth spot to drop a considerable amount of points.
So, should Liverpool fail to finish fourth, what then will be the compensation that Benitez will be obligated to dispense, having not being able to meet his own guarantee? Having only signed a 5 year contract at the end of last season, and with Liverpool's precarious financial situation, firing the Spaniard seems unfeasible for the Liverpool owners. Could this be the reason why Benitez was so confident to offer a guarantee in the first place? Safe in the knowledge that should the unthinkable materialise, Liverpool would be powerless to release him of his duties.
Whether the guarantee was backed by arrogance the commanding position Benitez has made for himself, or whether it was a true act of defiance in the confidence he has in team, if Liverpool fail to finish 4th, they will be left not only with a despondent set of supporters, but will have further, seriously impeded, their dire financial situation.
Realistically, they only way I foresee a change of management come the end of the season, would be for Benitez to resign if he fails to meet his own guarantee, or, for another club to buy out his contract. Which, with the expected departure of Pellegrini at Real Madrid, the Bernabeu would seem like the only club with more money than sense willing to prise Benitez' from Anfield.
In the mean time, Liverpool will sit and hope others in the immediate vicinity drop points. After Fulham's 2-1 loss to Manchester City, it would seem that both halves of Manchester will be celebrating victories of sorts over Liverpool tonight.
Despite Fulham's loss to City, if Liverpool were to finish outside of the top four, and Benitez subsequently departed Liverpool, Roy Hodgson would be my candidate to take over the helm at Anfield.
It might be unsupportive, and a little on the pessimistic side to talk of a post Benitez era, but that self proclaimed "guarantee" in my views leave Benitez with very little room for maneuver, with games rapidly running out.