It is a sign of the extent to which Liverpool’s season has become a train wreck that their home defeat has become a litmus test for the health of Rafael Benitez’s reign at Anfield. However an atrocious result and performance it was – and it was both, topped with whipped cream and a glacé cherry – it really shouldn’t have mattered. Last season, they were beaten just once in the Premier League and there were those that predicted that 2010 would be the season in which they broke their miserable run of almost two decades without an English championship, whilst launching another assault on the Champions League at the same time.
Against such optimistic prognoses, the FA Cup shouldn’t have mattered, and it is likely that it would have done considerably less so than it has turned out to. The true story of Liverpool’s season thus far has been one of unremitting mediocrity punctuated with occasional flashes of something more. Their Premier League campaign has been inconsistent of being infuriating, even to the neutral. A win against Manchester United and thrashings of Stoke City and Hull City have to be weighed up against defeats against Fulham, Portsmouth and a home defeat by Aston Villa. They are, at the time of writing, in seventh place and with seven defeats from their twenty matches. It is only the strangely libertarian atmosphere in the league that leaves them as little as twelve points off the top of the table.
They fared even worse in the Champions League, finishing third in what should have been a relatively comfortable group for them. They were outplayed over their four matches against Fiorentina and Lyon, picking up just one point from a possible twelve, and only have the relative consolation of a place in the Europa League because the fourth team in their group, Debrecen, were even weaker than they were. They play Unirea Urziceni, the current Romanian champions, in the Round of 32 of the Europa League. Whether this turns out to be a fortuitous draw for them or not remains to be seen.
The key problem on the pitch for Liverpool this season – an overdependence on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, to the extent that Torres has been made to play when clearly unfit and will now be out for six weeks with an injury sustained last night – have been discussed, and there can be little doubt that the buck, ultimately, stops with Benitez. Memories of their unlikely 2005 Champions League win may be starting to fade, and their defeat in the final of the same competition by the same opposition seemed to offer significant evidence that they had not built on the success of 2005. Benitez has won just one other trophy – the 2006 FA Cup – in five and a half years. He has enjoyed patience from Liverpool supporters in spades, but is currently failing to deliver.
If Liverpool do not sack Rafael Benitez before the season is out, the most likely reason is two-fold. On the one hand, it seems unlikely that Liverpool will want to change managers in the middle of the season. The vast majority of successful managers are unlikely to want to leave their clubs for a club that is looking increasingly like a basket case and might not even be playing European football next season. Secondly, there are financial considerations. Benitez has not only built a squad in his own image at Anfield. He was, upon his appointment, given carte blanche to assemble a vast backroom staff at Liverpool and this will prove expensive to dissemble. To put it curtly, if Liverpool want rid of Rafael Benitez, they’ll have to get rid of a lot of other players too, and it won’t come cheap.
Manchester United may well be putting them in the shade in the financial doubts stakes at the moment, but Liverpool remain on a far from sound footing. The Liverpool managing director yesterday made a statement to the effect that the club is close to securing £100m in “extra investment”, but they remain heavily in debt and they still need what is likely to turn out to be an expensive new stadium. Those that have interpreted this as Liverpool spending £100m on new players during the summer may turn out to be disappointed. As things stand, they cannot afford a new stadium and spending vast amounts of money on new players, in the short term through transfer fees or in the long term through massively increasing their wage budget. Maxi Rodriguez, for example, may or may not turn out to be a decent signing. The most significant factor of his signature, though, is that it was free.
Meanwhile, the cost of signing players is hardly likely to come down in the near future. Alex Ferguson somewhat disingenuously claimed that he will not be spending any money because the market is currently over-priced, but prices are likely to increase still further in the summer. The major concern for Liverpool is whether the sums can add up without Champions League football, because there won’t be any more prize money from the FA or League Cups this season, and their Premier League prize fund is almost certainly going to be lower than it was last season. The danger for them – and it a danger that is just as great as the utterly unsustainable level of debt is up the road at Old Trafford – is that the sums don’t seem to add up.
On the one hand, there is a clamour for extra investment in the team, the “need” for a new stadium and the continuing need to service a massive debt. On the other, the team is flatlining in all competitions this season and this is likely to lead to a reduction in revenue next season. Replacing Rafael Benitez then becomes yet another expensive headache that adds to the overall impression that Liverpool Football Club cannot continue like this. The sticking plaster to apply in such a situation might, for example, be to cash in and sell Fernando Torres, but that would obviously only increase the feeling of civil war at the club.
This sort of dilemma is where Liverpool Football Club finds itself in at the start of 2010. They cannot afford to not be in the Champions League, yet at the same time they have a manager that it may not be able to afford to be able to replace (no matter how much they may want to), a support that demands more success than they have had over the last three or four years and the need to build a new stadium. Quite how they will be able to circle that square in a financial environment in which there is very little money flowing around and in which many of the people that have had a go at investing in the game haven’t exactly ended up being all that they seemed to be. The next four months are going to be very important for Liverpool, and the gambles carry high stakes. Do they change managers now, at high cost, and risk disruption, or do they keep Benitez on board and hope for the best. It’s stick or twist, and the stakes are very high.