The morning after Liverpool crashed out of the Champions League has seen the club reiterate that Rafa Benitez’s position is safe. Not qualifying for the Champions League knock out stage is a big blow for a club that strives for parity at Europe’s top table. Throughout this season, Liverpool have struggled in the League and in Europe. Last night saw them relying on Lyon to win in Florence, but what astounded me was the lack of pushing for extra goals.
Liverpool needed goals, but towards the end of the game, Benitez’s substitutions began to become increasingly surreal. Ngog was removed for Benayoun, Left backs were exchanged and Aquilani was brought on for 34 seconds. All the while, Liverpool were praying for Lyon to score but if they had, Benitez needed Liverpool to score more. If Lyon had scored and the game in Florence was drawn, Liverpool then could qualify by beating Fiorentina 3-0 at Anfield.
Yet what would have happened if Liverpool had only won 2-0? It would have then come down to goal difference and Liverpool would have lost out again. As it is, it doesn’t matter anymore, but what struck me before the game yesterday was Jamie Carragher’s comments about winning the Europa League to give the season a “gloss”. This Liverpool side is possibly the weakest since Gerard Houillier left the club in the summer of 2004, they’re struggling in the league and only have the Europa League and the F.A. Cup to aim for. What kind of gloss does winning the Europa League give you?
The title is a non starter, but is it beyond them to finish 4th? They are only 5 points off 4th currently but the next 3 league games could see them fall further behind. Tough trips to Everton and Blackburn are followed by a visit from Arsenal whilst the upwardly mobile trio of Tottenham, Manchester City and Aston Villa are playing well. For Liverpool to profit they have to hope they can hit title form, without having a hope of the title and all 3 of their rivals fall away spectacularly.Is that possible?
Of course, people point to the injury crisis that seems to have engulfed Liverpool, but this squad is solely the work of Rafa Benitez. It is only weak because he has created such a situation. He still relies on 2 players he inherited, Gerrard and Carragher, who are coming to the end of their natural careers. Gerrard is 29 and Carragher is 32 in January and has probably had his most fitful season in the red shirt. Gerrard can still drag Liverpool forward, but for how much longer? How much longer can Carragher keep going? How much will it cost to replace them?
Last year for me saw Liverpool punching way above their weight when they ran Manchester United so close for the title. Chelsea were in flux, Arsenal were still growing as a side. Spurs were in a crisis of their own creation, Villa lost their way and Manchester City were still coming to grips with their new found wealth. That is not the case this season, all of their rivals are in much better shape and all of them have money to spend, which is certainly not the case at Anfield.
The constant negativity towards the owners has sullied the the picture at Anfield, taking the focus away from the playing squad. Blaming bad luck, referees and injuries is becoming the norm from Benitez. Yes they have had bad luck with injuries but so have Chelsea and Manchester United. Chelsea were without Lampard, Drogba, Ballack, Boswinga and Carvalho on Saturday and thumped Wolves 4-0. Would a Liverpool side without Torres, Gerrard, Carragher, Mascherano and Johnson do so?
Of course the added poignancy here for Liverpool is that they can’t afford to sack Benitez regardless of how bad this season turns out for them. The last accounts filed for 2007-2008 saw Liverpool make a loss of £41.5 million on top of a £290 million debt. There is no doubt that Hicks and Gillett have saddled the club with debt, but at what point does the playing squad become the main area for concern? It is a dangerous game to assume Liverpool can walk in to the Europa League and win it.
There will be other footballing giants in the next round of the competition, which Liverpool will have to be aware of. Inter Milan, Bayern Munich, Marseille, Real Madrid, AC Milan, CSKA Moscow and Athletico Madrid could all join them. It will not be easy for a team playing well to win it, never mind one that is struggling across all fronts to find some form. Benitez has to find a settled side and stick with it, forget the Europa League and concentrate on the league. Benitez’s obsession with Europe could completely derail the league with dire consequences.
What if Liverpool don’t win the Europa League and finish 5th? That’s a £40 million hole in a teams finances that is losing £40 million a year already. Across the Pennines, the effects of financial mismanagement coupled with failure to qualify for the Champions League can still be seen at Elland Road. That’s a very real scenario, regardless of history and standing. Liverpool need to get going and quickly or a disappointing season will become a catastrophic one within weeks.