Really, what more has to happen before the board accept enough is enough? How many more indignities must Rafa Benitez put Liverpool and their fans through before the men in charge have to fire him?
Last night Liverpool exited the FA Cup with a whimper after an atrocious performance at home to reading. That’s now 10 defeats in 20 games. Yet the manager remains safely in a job.
It’s not as though we went down fighting either. Of the 14 players used last night only 5 (Agger, Carragher, Torres, Aquilani and Degen) seemed to give anything resembling a damn about the club with the other 10 players looking as though they’d rather be anywhere else than on that pitch in the freezing cold. The players do not look like they want to play for him and they certainly don’t look like they are enjoying playing for Liverpool at the moment.
After the pathetic showing at the Madjeski Stadium, we were all expecting Liverpool to come out flying in this game, remembering of course, that this was our best chance of getting silverware this season. Benitez seemed to recognise this by putting out a pretty strong side. I couldn’t believe that Reina was rested for this game, especially as he has looked the only stable force in the chaos that is our defence, how much rest does a keeper who didn’t play at the weekend, really need?
The tone for the evening was set early on with Torres clattered by a late challenge in the first minute, and he was eventually forced off with a knee injury after half an hour and will require an operation, ruling him out for the next 6 weeks. Torres on one leg was still by far and away our best attacking player. That speaks volumes.
In the first half Kuyt was appalling, Benayoun anonymous, Gerrard very subdued, Aquilani still way off the pace and Lucas...was Lucas. Reading should have scored when Rasiak missed an easy chance when Carragher allowed the ball to run straight to him and Cavalieri in goal was so terribly ineffective as a commander of his area that even routine balls into the area were a source of panic.
Liverpool were unable to make any impression whatsoever with our usual tactics of ‘give it to Torres or Gerrard and hope they do something’ not working. Aquilani was trying and failing repeatedly to spray long balls out wide, Lucas was consistently managing to pass to players who were either in a worse position than him or pass 5 yards behind the player he was meant too.
The crowd was getting restless, groaning at every piece of slack play, howls of derision were greeting every misplaced pass, or should I just say every pass. All we had to show for the first half was a weak N’Gog shot and Benayoun coming close. That was until a corner pinballed around the box and Gerrard mishit a cross that Adam Bertrand deflected into his own net. That was the only thing that saved Liverpool’s players from going off at the interval to a chorus of boos.
I was stood there at half-time thinking that was about as bad a half of football as I’ve ever seen. Little did I know that soon I’d be referring to that first-half display as the best part of the evening. Gerrard went off injured at half-time and was replaced by Babel. I thought Babel may provide the X-Factor that we needed and it was the perfect opportunity for him to shine. Wrong again.
Liverpool badly needed a second goal but instead we were treated to the usual Benitez tactic of retreat, retreat, retreat. Now Torres and Gerrard were off we were playing a new tactic, let’s just hope for the best. Aquilani tried manfully to make something happen but the defence was too congested.
Kuyt was about as useful as a condom machine in a convent, Benayoun had about as much influence on Liverpool’s attacking play as me, N’Gog failed to make any impression whatsoever. Babel started the second half by missing a header and that was the best thing he did all night. For a man that stated that he didn’t want to be pushed out of Liverpool he showed absolutely no desire to play for the club all night.
About midway through the second half Reading, who’d worked hard without really doing anything, finally realised that we were totally impotent going forward and took their holding midfielder off for a more attacking option (yes, you are allowed to do that Rafa!). Reading were the better side from then on and Jobi McAnuff shot just wide after a brilliant mazy run that was appreciated by both sets of fans as it was the first attacking play we’d seen for a long time.
It was looking like Liverpool were going to escape with a completely undeserved win until Reading were awarded an injury time penalty. It looked a very harsh decision from where I was sat, particularly as the ref missed a foul on Lucas in the build-up, but if Benayoun is stupid enough to hang a leg out in the area then there is always the risk of conceding a foul.
We came out for extra-time and the body-language of our players was disgusting. Most of the team had completely given up and looked as though they couldn’t be bothered to even try. We had one substitution left and we were speculating on whom it would be used. Would it be the exciting prospect Dani Pacheco to provide the Reading defence with something different to worry about? Or, with the game potentially being decided on a penalty shoot-out would we bring set-piece specialist Fabio Aurelio on to replace Insua, who was being given a torrid time?
Of course not. What does every team who needs a goal need? A centre back, what else? So, on came Skrtel for Degen, our best attacking player in the second half. I know he’s not a first-team regular and so maybe there was an issue of tiredness but he didn’t look to be tiring badly and that was yet another Benitez substitution that completely bemused me.
Reading promptly scored when Insua was nutmegged, the crowd stood baying at him because they could see what was coming, Sigurdsson crossed to Shane Long, who hadn’t scored since April, and the Irishman was left free in the area to send a header perfectly past Cavalieri.
Liverpool showed all the attacking intent of the Swiss Army in extra-time. We somehow managed to create a chance, with Benayoun being put through on goal only to cap a truly dire performance by weakly passing the ball straight to the on rushing Federici. We were reduced to hitting long balls into the box for nobody to win, as had been the case all night, I couldn’t remember one of our attacking players winning a header all game and yet we kept hitting the ball in the air.
At one point in the second half of extra-time, Reading got a break and surged up the pitch. I counted 5 players walking back and one trotting back. They would have scored again but for Agger busting a gut to get across to make the challenge. If the rest of our players had shown even half of his desire, the result would have been much different.
As it was we exited the Cup with a whimper, many fans only having stayed to the end to let the boos ring out around Anfield. That’s the third time under Benitez we have fallen at the first hurdle in the cup and the second time in 3 years we have lost at home to a lower division team.
Benitez once again deflected the blame from himself by bemoaning the clubs financial situation. Bullshit. Even without Gerrard and Torres, that was a team assembled for almost £65million. All of those players, except Carragher, are Benitez signings. Not accepting that as an excuse why you couldn’t manage the team to a win in 2 games against the side in that are 21st in the Championship and why in both games we were utter crap Rafa, not accepting that at all.
He also spoke of the need for players to take responsibility, while completely shirking responsibility himself. This is his squad of players that he has assembled for a huge amount of money (yes, his net spend is not astronomical but it is still a large amount of money that most managers would give their right arm for) and has invested badly. For instance why have we paid £3.5m on a keeper to warm the bench and has looked diabolical every time he has played while keepers promoted from the youth squad have been held back to the point they want to leave? He has no plan B when his initial game plan unravels, never tries anything different and is completely unimaginative. He comes out and states that the club went seven years trophyless under Bill Shankly, which is true, but Shankly had delivered 2 league titles by then.
When Jermaine Pennant left Liverpool he spoke of how Benitez curbed his natural game by giving him a plethora of instructions that meant he was unable to play with any freedom or imagination. He claimed somewhat flippantly, that Benitez tried to turn him into a robot. You can see something similar in our current team. They are playing without any confidence, joy or freedom. Look at Gerrard who has moped about the pitch, look at Torres who is getting increasingly frustrated, look at Babel, a man with all the talent in the world but isn’t showing it where it matters in games. He looks so terrified to do something wrong he doesn’t want to do anything. The best managers adapt their personality to each player, knowing which player needs the carrot and which the stick.
In his autobiography Fernando Torres states that Benitez “motivates through criticism”, which doesn’t always work. I believe that Ryan Babel is the kind of player that needs an arm around his shoulder but he’s just getting a foot up his arse. By the way, Torres’ outburst isn’t that of someone who wants to leave, it’s that of someone who cares.
Benitez is a stubborn man who will not change his tactics when they’re not working to prove some kind of point. That is killing us as he is putting his ego ahead of what’s best for LFC.
There are currently no plans to get rid of Benitez according to Christian Purslow. That might have something to do with the rumours of an investment or takeover, where the incoming investor may have his own man in mind for the job.
Benitez has made the rod for his own back by guaranteeing 4th place, which is looking like the most incorrect statement since Neville Chamberlain was saying peace in our time. Even if he pulls it off he should go, Gerard Houllier finished 4th and went and every criticism of Houllier applies to Benitez (wasteful in the transfer market, boring to watch, bad youth policy). Benitez won’t resign; he’s far too arrogant for that, that would mean admitting to himself that he can’t bend the club to his will. That means we’ll have to make him the second manager ever to be sacked by LFC and we’ll have to pay him at least £5m if he gets another job within a year.
There are reports that Guus Hiddink wants to come back to the Premier League. That’s the kind of manager we should be after. Jose Mourinho’s name has been mentioned too. Martin O’Neill should be considered. It would be the summer before we’d realistically be able to get a new permanent manager so if he was fired, we’d look to Kenny Dalglish to step into the breach until the end of the season. The much-maligned Liverpool board must make the most important decision of recent years in what to do next. Stick with Benitez or cut our losses and go with someone else? For me there is only one outcome. Any manager who takes a team that was expected to be challenging for the title on a dismal run like this would expect to be fired. Why is he any different?
We have had so many make-or -break Games this season it’s hard to keep track but the games against Stoke and Spurs really are must-wins. The trouble is, I can’t see us even getting a point from either game.
There are two very sad realisations from the Reading game. That wasn’t even the worst we’ve played this season, Portsmouth was worse. The second is that the good performances are the anomalies, the bad ones are the norm.