Papers: Rafa’s time has come

It’s now or never really. The first leg of the Champions League second round clash against Inter Milan kicks off tonight at 7.45pm at Anfield. Having gone out of the League Cup, FA Cup and finding themselves 19 points behind Premier League leaders Arsenal, the Reds turn to Europe to change their dwindling fortunes this season’¦

Oliver Kay of The Times this morning looks at how people are calling this Rafa Benitez’s last chance to keep his job at the club. He desribes that improved relations between the Spaniard and the club’s American owners will ultimately not be enough. Results count.

An improbable, newfound alliance with Tom Hicks has raised Rafael Benítez’s hopes of staying on as Liverpool manager beyond the summer, but, despite mounting another impassioned defence of his record before tonight’s Champions League showdown with Inter Milan at Anfield, the Spaniard knows that his troubled regime will stand or fall by results as much as by political manoeuvring behind the scenes.

Kay fears the Benitez must now hope Hicks and Gillett do not sell up to the Dubai International Capital, who if they purchase the club will be looking to make some swift changes. Kay continues:

Benítez appears to be clinging to the belief that Hicks, the butt of the Liverpool supporters’ derision and anger, will resist the temptation to sell and perhaps even increase his influence by buying out Gillett, on whose shares he has first option. But DIC is confident of buying the club outright and, if it does so, will undertake a far-reaching review of all areas of the club at the end of the season, including the manager’s position.

Martin Samual, also of The Times also writes ahead of tonight’s match against the Serie A leaders. Now is the time to prove your worth, Rafa.

The logic was impeccable. How many managers, Rafael Benítez wished to know, had won the Champions League? Not many. And how many had won it twice? Hardly any. And how many had reached two finals in three years? We get the point. Yet logic and Liverpool parted company long ago. The prospect of beating Internazionale, of Milan, was discussed quite enthusiastically yesterday when, on Saturday, Liverpool failed to win against Barnsley, of Barnsley. In the same breath it will be stated, very matter-of-factly, that Benítez has to win the Champions League to keep his job as if to fall short of a third final in four years was an unacceptable level of underachievement.

He goes on to discuss the potential catastrophe it would be if Liverpool failed to qualify for the Champions League this season.

There is more riding on this evening’s game than one lousy season. Those who analyse balance sheets suggest that if Liverpool do not qualify for next season’s Champions League, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the club owners, will not be able to service the overdraft on the most recent refinancing agreement. They will then have two choices: to make up the shortfall personally, having underwritten the loans, or to raise the money by curtailing incoming transfers or, worse, selling players. Not those the fans would like to get rid of, either. Dirk Kuyt is unlikely to cover a £15 million hole in the accounts; Fernando Torres is.

Patrick Nathanson of The Telegraph chooses to look closer at our opposition tonight, who lead the Italian leagues by eleven points from Roma.

Domestically, no one can stop them. In Europe, there is no other side that can boast such variety in attack. Zlatan Ibrahimovic provides the guile, Julio Cruz is a tremendous worker and strong in the air, David Suazo has the power, and Hernan Crespo adds the finesse.
Roberto Mancini has such an embarrassment of riches up front that he could afford to leave out the teen prodigy Mario Balotelli, fresh from winning the prestigious Carneval Cup in Viareggio with Inter’s youth side, from his Champions League squad.

And finally, Liverpool Reserves were disappointingly held to a goalless draw by Newcastle Utd Reserves at St James’ Park last night. The Reserves next face Manchester United on Tuesday, 26th February at the Halliwell Jones Stadium in Warrington. Kick-off is 7.30pm.