Rafa Benitez says Liverpool are not out of the title race just yet. This morning’s back pages think otherwise’¦
An excellent article from Tim Rich of The Telegraph describes the familiarity of Liverpool beginning the New Year well behind the league leaders. He points out that New Year’s Day in Valencia, Benitez’s former club, is ‘œLos Santos Innocentes – its version of April Fool’s Day, when tricks are played on strangers and no story in the local media can be taken at face value. New Year on Merseyside is somewhat different. By the time the clock on the Liver Building has struck 12, Anfield’s title ambitions are usually dead and every headline in the sports pages of the Liverpool Echo carries a grim seriousness.’
Rich continues and notes that the closest Liverpool have been to the top of the table at New Year’s during Benitez’s four year reign was last year when we sat eleven points behind Chelsea.
When the final whistle sounded on Wednesday night after Wigan had forced a 1-1 draw, the boos signalled that the title was now a three-cornered fight. Last month’s defeat by Manchester United had suggested it; Titus Bramble’s wildly improbable drive from the edge of the area confirmed it.
The Scotsman goes with a story comparing the woes of the Premier League‘s under-fire managers, Benitez and Newcastle’s Sam Allardyce. They are now the top two favourites with the bookies to be the next managers to be sacked in the league.
Both managers face a testing weekend in the cauldron of uncertainty which is the FA Cup third round this weekend.
Meanwhile Steve Finnan seems to have a bit of logic in his sight. Yesterday he all but ruled out the Reds from challenging for the title after Wednesday night’s 1-1 draw at home to Wigan. The right-back says there is no room for any more mistakes at home. Ian Herbert in The Times writes:
Finnan’s prognosis makes the arrival of Aston Villa, on 19 January, less than welcome, though Sunderland are next up at home and there are trips to West Ham United and Middlesbrough for Liverpool. But if Manchester United and Arsenal keep grinding out wins, as they are doing, the best Liverpool can wish for is to keep some kind of hope alive before they travel to Chelsea on Sunday 10 February.
Scott Murray for The Guardian looks back at the fall-out between Benitez and assistant Paco Ayesteran earlier this season as a potential banana skin in this disappointing campaign.
BenÃtez might also regret falling out with Pako Ayesteran: idle speculation in Spain, where BenÃtez already has a reputation in some quarters as a lucky manager who struck gold while Barcelona and Real Madrid were in the doldrums, suggests his erstwhile No2 may have been the real brains behind the project.
Whether that’s unfair or not is moot. Liverpool haven’t been noticeably better or worse since Pako’s departure – with or without Ayesteran, they’ve been consistently pedestrian – but either way it’s time for BenÃtez to prove his true worth. It might not be too dramatic to suggest the January transfer window represents BenÃtez’s last throw of the dice; if he can’t get Liverpool playing attractive, attacking football by the end of the season, his chance to forge a lasting Anfield legacy amounting to more than a couple of cups may, like this year’s title chances, be gone.