Is Rafa digging his own grave?

Throughout my twenty-plus years following Liverpool I fail to recollect another morning in which I felt so helpless. Admittedly, Tuesday’s numbing headache, avalanche of work and lack of funds would cloud the start to any day, but this March morning felt particularly bitter.

Why? Well because throughout life’s struggles I’ve always found sanctuary in the form of my beloved club. The mighty LFC are an eternal source of hope and pride, capable of restoring ones faith in an instant, or rather a magical 90 minutes. As supporters we turn to our team in search of inspiration. But on Monday I went to the well and found only a corpse.

The team I love is not yet dead but it resembles a shadow of its former self. Void of pace, ingenuity and desire the Reds are merely going through the motions at present and it makes for painful viewing.
The cynics who label this lament a knee-jerk reaction are blinkered. I’ve bitten my tongue for what seems like an age due to an unbridled loyalty to Rafa Benitez. However, the latest instalment in a turgid season demands criticism.

With all due respect to Wigan Athletic they are the Billy Mitchell of the Premier League. A small, insignificant cousin of the big boys, there often to be shot-at with little to no hope of causing a great stir. Put bluntly, any outfit harbouring genuine Champions League ambitions should brush the Latics aside with minimal fuss.

Unforgivable then was the Reds shambolic display at the DW Stadium, where any lingering aspirations of that coveted top four disappeared faster than Lewis Hamilton leaving the pits.

Throughout a disgusting 90 minutes we failed to test a redundant Chris Kirkland once. The match itself mirrored similar surrenders at the hands of Sunderland, Fulham, Portsmouth and Wolves. A familiar story yes, but inexplicable all the same.

The squad is currently one great car crash with more baggage than Katie Price. Though explanations of plenty abound all stem back to one source – Benitez.

imageIncreasingly isolated, the manager has evidently lost sections of his dressing room. The most obvious dissident is a beleaguered Steven Gerrard. So often the saviour when events turn bleak, the captain’ s form has nose-dived this term. The root cause, in my opinion, was the departure of close pal Xabi Alonso.

A Rolls Royce of a midfielder, the Spaniard was Gerrard’s perfect foil. Capable of dictating any game with his measured passing and immaculate control, Xabi developed an almost telepathic understanding with his buddy. When in possession he could turn the tables in an instant, releasing the skipper and sparking an attack. Though seldom netting himself, his expansive game created chances for those around him. Consider this, Gerrard bagged an impressive 25 goals last season. To date, he has mustered a mere 8. Deprived of his lifeblood SG has faltered in the attacking department.

From the outside it seems as though Gerrard blames his boss for the leaving of his mate. To be fair, Rafa effectively left Alonso with no choice but to board a plane home (more of that later) but that should not excuse his skipper’s body language, which is highly irritable. Wondering around with a sulk-on helps nobody and harks back to the facial expressions worn by Michael Owen before his exit in 2004.
It’s as if Gerrard’s mind is elsewhere. Disillusioned with his manager he is either anticipating a change in the hot seat or change of scenery.

Others too are shirking responsibility no doubt aghast with club management.

imageSince arrival on Merseyside Benitez’s major downfall has been his stubbornness. Quite simply, nobody tells Rafa what to do. A case-in point is zonal marking; a form of defending so haphazard it makes Bob Geldof look tidy. Any blind man can see lining-up for set-pieces in this vain is suicide, yet El Boss persists as if to prove a point. Off the top of my head I can recall goals shipped to Spurs, Villa and Unirea in this fashion and logic tells us this is a major Achilles heel. But do not expect a change in tact any time soon as this was after all the tried and trusted Valencia way… the only way.

In cases like this you turn to those surrounding the gaffer for constructive criticism. However in Sammy Lee and Mauricio Pellegrino Rafa’s ego is massaged by ‘yes men’ – the way he wants it. The removal of Rick Parry left nobody to critique management; Benitez is all-powerful to the detriment of the wider cause.

Another case in point of RB’s iron will is his failure to approach the aforementioned Owen last summer. Though now tainted goods, the former Reds striker would have crawled back to Anfield had an olive branch been offered. As it was, the manager abstained, allowing him to join a major rival whilst offloading Kristian Nemeth on-loan. That left us desperately short up-top with only the injury-plagued Fernando Torres, raw David N’Gog and hopeless Andriy Voronin. Is it any surprise we’ve been subjected to a chronic lack of goals since?

Cross Rafa and there’s now way back. Just ask Owen, Djibril Cisse, Stephane Henchoz, Craig Bellamy, Peter Crouch, Robbie Keane, Ryan Babel perhaps even Albert Riera; whose been AWOL in recent weeks. All had the audacity to question/upset their boss and were mercilessly dealt with. Even Pako Ayesteran, a revered first steam coach, was cut-loose after upsetting his colleague.

imageBabel’s case is particularly infuriating. Sure, at times our part-time footballer turned rapstar has warranted criticism. He is lethargic, temperamental and inconsistent – granted. But he also packs a wicked shot, burst of pace and the capability to turn a game. Seeing as Liverpool are so laboured at present his inclusion would turn the tide instantly. Whenever given hope of resurrecting his spell in the North West it is cruelly withdrawn in no time. At the end of February for instance, boosted by two consecutive starts, Babel oozed a little more belief. Then what occurs? Exclusion against Blackburn and Wigan. Nonsensical and furthermore damaging to morale.

Then we move onto to the style of play. Rafa is so negative he might as well have a minus sign tattooed to his forehead. Starting two holding players is fine against dangerous, potent opposition but against Birmingham at home?

There is no flair whatsoever. The fact neither Mascherano nor Lucas can find a forward pass between them hardly helps but Dirk Kuyt’s sluggish wing-play is too a self-inflicted wound.

I love Kuyt’s bones and he remains one of the side’s most valued performers. However, he is a striker (as proven during his recent purple patch in front of goal). Why not start him up top in a two-pronged attack? Immediately there is more of a threat and the vacuum left out wide can be filled by someone a little more dynamic, say Benayoun, Maxi, El Zhar or even Johnson.

A Benitez eleven are programmed like robots, leaving little room for imagination.

imageA huge debate also rages concerning the divisive Lucas. Given his qualities he has actually had a decent season but the Brazilian is painfully limited. He is simply not good enough for Liverpool, never has been and never will be. He does not posses a killer pass, cannot shoot and tackles like he’s had an afternoon session in The Albert before kick-off. So what explanation is there for him being an automatic choice? I’m half expecting him to sprout a goatee and start balding because he must be Rafa’s secret love child. Why else would such favouritism be shown to such an average player? A large percentage of Kopites would agree with this analysis but the louder the voices of discontent, the greater Rafa’s resolve.

The consistent selection of Lucas has also made a mockery of Alberto Aquilani’s Liverpool career. If Benitez escapes the chop this summer I fully expect his Italian signing to depart akin to Keane’s disposal. He has started a pathetic seven games. Sure, the old adage of him being short of fitness is spouted with each exclusion but he’s been back in full training since November! His manager clearly doesn’t fancy him. It’s as though he set-out to buy Rihanna and ended-up with Jo Brand, in which case you have to question his judgement.

All coaches sign donkeys but we’ve been subjected to more than our fair share: Josemi, Nunez, Morientes, Pellegrino, Kromkamp, Gonzales, Itange, Barragan, Dossena… I better stop as I’m about to keel over.
That charge sheet is more incriminating than John Terry’s. It’s worsened when considering the calibre of players let go during that same period, the likes of Murphy, Warnock, Bellamy, Sissoko and Keane.

Obvious is the fact money has not been spent wisely. In the summer of 2008 Benitez was cast in the role of a desperate man – auctioning off Alonso to any bidder so he could lure Gareth Barry to Anfield. Barry is competent but hardly spectacular. The concept of him being superior to Xabi is laughable. Eventually, I’m sure, Benitez realised this but the damage had been done. Alonso was always set to depart given the treatment he received. He actually revealed in an interview that his manager never apologised to him or in fact even acknowledged the matter. Man-management skills are clearly lacking if this rings true.

imageWhen eventually handed the £30 million fee however it was wasted. Glen Johnson is a fine right-back but to dish-out £17million on him was a tad extreme. Add that layout to Aquilani’s and your might in the transfer window evaporates. On the back of last season the Reds should have purchased a world class forward to partner Torres. The raw materials were there to mount a challenge but backward steps curtailed the possibility.

For all his faults I still love Benitez. I’ve had the privilege of meeting him on a few occasions and found him a true gent. But ultimately there’s only so much slack you can afford someone. In an ideal world Rafa would realise his failings and alter the manner in which he manages – that way we could rebuild and go-about getting our precarious house in order. Yet the harsh reality is he will never. That prospect is daunting in itself and suggests a change may be needed.

There are also frightful happenings out of his control. Amongst these is the depressing ownership issue. Messers Hicks and Gillett do not posses a pot to pee in, which spells trouble for next season. Unless investment is found soon the overriding fear is of continual stagnation. With a bank balance redder than the shirt and the likelihood of no continental competition, how will we go about revamping our tattered ranks? In a similar vain this new 60,000 seater stadium will remain as much a reality as my bedding Cheryl Cole. In 2010 football is a money game and Liverpool have none. That’s a grave scenario.

Our atrocious owners are also so skint you have to query whether they could sack Rafa if they wanted to. The prospect of a £20 million pay-off says no.

The futures of certain individuals are also garnering too many headlines. Javier Mascherano is dithering over a new deal. I say dithering, he’s actually holding out for Barcelona, no doubt. A great player yes but a player who would happily forget the employers who rescued him from mediocrity at West Ham.

Masch played the whole ‘my wife is unhappy’ card last year and expect the same charade this summer. If he wants out let him go. No player is bigger than LFC.

Manchester City’s embarrassment of riches will also lead to an inevitable pursuit of Torres and perhaps Gerrard. Such consistent speculation adds to the air of insecurity. The old adage of ‘it never rains, it pours’ seems appropriate at this time.

Regardless of the chaos though, I’ll be at Anfield next week to support my team and its manager. What I and 40,000 others witness could be just another instalment in a protracted end of an era. But until the empire crumbles we’ll keep the faith. Liverpool is after all more than just a club; it’s a religion.


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