Was Rafa’s genius in his kidney stones?

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So it’s the 28th of December, 2008. Liverpool sit top of the Premier League, looking very comfortable about holding onto topspot for the foreseeable future having just utterly demolished Newcastle United away from home. The January fixture list sees trips to Stoke and Wigan, and a home Merseyside Derby ‘“ all winnable matches.

But it’s January 30th now and we’ve slipped down to third. We haven’t won in the league in 2009, and face a hectic fixture schedule having failed to dump Everton out of the F.A. Cup fourth round on the first ask. To add to our woes, certain tactical decisions, public outbursts and disgruntlement about his new contract offers, have lead to the whole world ‘“ and many of our fans ‘“ explaining how ‘œcrazy’ Rafa Benitez has gone.

This morning’s back pages don’t make for comfortable reading. ‘˜Can Liverpool Bounce Back From Meltdown?’ (The Times), ‘˜Liverpool Fans Fear Rafa Has Lost The Plot’ (Belfast Telegraph), ‘˜Kop Carry On Is Past A Joke’ (Daily Express), ‘˜Watertight United Are Simply Unstoppable But Liverpool Are Fading Fast From The Title Race’ (Daily Mail), ‘˜Crazy Days Take Over in Benitez’s Private War’ (The Independent) and ‘˜Stubborn Benitez has become the embodiment of Liverpool’s flaws’ (The Guardian). It’s not a pretty picture.

The papers are trying to figure out exactly where it’s gone wrong for Liverpool lately. Ever since Benitez returned from his festive trip to the hospital to have kidney stones removed, things seem to have gone pear-shaped.

The situation echoes a familiar scenario several years ago. The Reds were sitting top of the league when manager Gerard Houllier fell ill, taken to hospital, and was out for a large portion of the season. On his return, things had changed and Liverpool were no longer title contenders.

Benitez’s public outburst at Alex Ferguson seemed like genius at the time, but in retrospect was probably the worst timing. Now Ferguson and United sit top of the Premier League table, looking impressive on the pitch and in no mood to give up the race for their 18th league title ‘“ equalling Liverpool’s record.

Follow that public outburst with his pubic frustration at the club’s owners offering a less than satisfying new contract. He wants more say in transfer policy, unhappy that chief executive Rick Parry seems incapable of closing deals off. His main frustration must still stem from not acquiring the services of Gareth Barry last summer. But in hindsight if you look at the form of Barry compared to the man he would have replaced, Xabi Alonso, that transfer saga seems to have worked out for the best. The problem with Benitez’s contract refusal was again the timing.

The third frustration with Benitez lies over his recent tactics, and inability to kill a game off. The games at home to Everton and away at Wigan could have been ugly victories, but late equalisers by our opposition have denied us four more precious Premier League points. Wednesday night’s trip to the JJB Stadium brought out inexplicable moans from Liverpool supporters who could see no logic in bringing on striker Robbie Keane to prove himself with just nine minutes to go, taking off Steven Gerrard ‘“ the man who can make remarkable comebacks happen, with striker Fernando Torres already taken off, in place of winger Albert Riera, twenty minutes earlier. What has happened to the tactical genius that produced these scrappy victories during the first half of the season?

Newspapers

Richard Williams of The Guardian says the focus of Liverpool’s problems has been transferred too much onto Benitez himself.

With 15 matches of the league season still to go, nothing in Benítez’s actions or behaviour this month has suggested that he will be able to motivate his team to repass their rivals in order to bring the title back to Anfield for the first time in 19 years. And perhaps the weakest element of Liverpool’s claim to be taken for credible contenders is that so much of the focus is on Benítez himself.

When we’re on our way to our best chance at a shot of the Premier League crown and off the pitch problems appear to effect what’s happening on the pitch, it’s not surprising so many Liverpool fans are crowding the forums and blogs of the internet world, showing they’ve lost faith with our Spanish manager.

But how about that word ‘“ ‘˜faith’. If Rafa’s lost the plot then have many Liverpool fans lost the plot too?

We’ve enjoyed good form this season and it’s been a long time since we saw Liverpool’s name at the top of the pile of teams week in, week out. Is that not a sign that we’re getting closer?

Yes, we’ve actually got less points now at this stage of the season than last, but where does comparing seasons get you? This is a different season, and as we’ve seen and several Premier League managers have noticed, the lower teams are figuring the top four out. Manchester United and Chelsea have lost their fair share of points to lower teams too. You don’t win leagues by finishing with more points than the season before; you win leagues by finishing with more points than everyone else.

Earlier I mentioned Richard Williams of The Guardian saying the focus of Liverpool’s problems was too much on Bentiez. But are some fans putting the off the pitch backroom problems of the club and Benitez’s off the pitch public outbursts together and coming up with a lack of faith for his managerial know-how?

Paul Joyce of the Daily Express puts this case in point:

His side have still lost only once all season and are eight points better off than at the same stage last term, when they languished in seventh place some 17 points adrift of the title winners Manchester United. Yet his wisdom and methods are under closer scrutiny from the red hordes than at any point in his confrontational reign.

Only occasionally ‘“ and usually after a Liverpool goal ‘“ does ‘œRafa, Rafael, Rafa, Rafael’ sound from the stands these days, with supporters too busy chattering about substitutions, team selections, overt caution and political posturing.

Joyce also points out that some of the emphasis of the criticism in Liverpool Football Club right now should be attributed to the experience of the players.

Amid the barrage of criticism coming the manager’s way, he is entitled to ask more from his experienced players. Wigan’s Michael Brown has spent his career relying on raw aggression to mask his inadequacies, but why Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Martin Skrtel could not have got to grips with him is unclear.

Surely now is the time to keep the faith. It’s been three disappointing results in three matches that has turned fans hailing this season as exciting and our best chance yet to another season blown. But in reality, we’re two points off top spot ‘“ which is held by the reigning European Champions ‘“ and we’ve still got to go to Old Trafford. We’ve proved in recent times taking three points in their own back yard is not mission impossible.

I’ll leave this article with a quote from ‘˜flagpolecorner’ in our forums.

It’s January, we have had a cracking start to the season, hit a poor run of draw’s. The Mancs will not go unbeaten for the rest of the season and we are still in the mix.

Lets get behind the team and the manager – I for one didnt think it was going to be easy to win the league you have ups and downs… it will get better and if we beat Chelsea we are back in the fight.

The pressure is off us and completely on the Mancs – bring it on.

Stay positive and keep the faith.

To mark the end of the 30-year wait for a league title, the ‘Liverpool Mishmash’ poster is available to order exclusively on This Is Anfield — the history of the Reds in one image!

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