When Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez tried to offload midfielder Xabi Alonso in the summer of 2008 at a mooted fee of £16 million, Juventus declared an interest. Alonso, reluctant to leave Anfield for Italy, turned his back. A year later and it was the midfielder – relationship with Benitez irrevocably broken – that forced a move to Real Madrid for double the fee.
Some, rather myopically, might have credited Benitez with the huge influx of Spanish cash. But while the wind of Real Madrid’s bank-fuelled spending is a huge boon to Liverpool’s indebted owners, the cost to the club’s title hopes is even more stark. For it was Alonso, not talisman Steven Gerrard, nor striker Fernando Torres, that truly made Liverpool’s heart beat.
On the pitch Liverpool’s fourth defeat in a row, this time to Olympique Lyonnais last night, marked their sixth in all competitions this season. It’s the worst run of form for the Anfield outfit in 22 years. Liverpool wasn’t champions then either. Everton was.
So long the fall from grace. From certainties for the title that so many Liverpool fans believed in the close season, to a dogfight for a Champions League place next season. The pressure exerted by both Arsenal and Manchester City in the race for fourth is already beginning to tell.
But Alonso’s departure is symptomatic not causal of failures in both club and player management at Anfield. Benitez, whose fight with the board over money has only increased the pressure on the Madrid-born coach to deliver, built a squad around the undoubted talents of Gerrard and Torres. Two world class players that regularly require attention from an equally adept physiotherapist.
Elsewhere Benitez’ squad, stocked with talent unfulfilled at the very top level from goalkeeper to strikers, has let him down. Pepe Reina failed at Barcelona, Albert Riera at Espanyol and Andriy Voronin at just about everywhere. Everybody else is failing much closer to home.
Then there are the three left-backs Fábio Aurélio, Emiliano Insúa and Andrea Dossena, whom Benitez juggles as heartily as the board its bank loans. Or the stupendously inept £18 million spent on a defensively inadequate right-back, Glenn Johnson.
Just examples of a wider problem with a transfer policy that is best described as scattergun.
It’s five years since Benitez walked into Anfield; another in a 20-year long search for the promised land of Premier League victory. Indeed, the Champions League win over Milan in 2005 is now very much an anomaly, not the start of something bigger for the Anfield outfit. Premier League victory further away than at any time in the past two decades.
Last season’s campaign – the club’s best attempt in 20 years – was not ruined by injury to Torres or Gerrard, despite the managerial rhetoric. Benitez, unlikely as it is, must take responsibility for not staffing his squad with a more balanced outlook. And the manager’s rant at Sir Alex Ferguson shifted Benitez’ focus and increased the pressure on his own players at a critical juncture.
Now, with Alonso departed and predictable fitness concerns surrounding Torres and Gerrard, Benitez finds himself at least three players short of a squad capable of challenging for the title. It’s a situation that might be fixed with money but only if the club’s American owners fire Benitez and sell off their stock first.
The Spaniard could do with some luck, of course, and Darren Bent’s winner for Sunderland, deflected in off a Liverpool branded beach ball last week, hardly helped. Hilarious as it was.
Indeed, the pressure is mounting on the former Valencia manager to the extent that questions over his future tenure are inevitable if United beat his team on Sunday. Out-of-work coaches the globe over, fired for far less than losing five on the trot, will be watching.
One saving grace for Benitez, however, is that the management structure of his club is so weak and so divided that it’s hard to know who could possibly deliver the P45 to his Melwood training ground office.
On Sunday Benitez faces his old foe Ferguson once again. The Spaniard’s team has the advantage of a day’s extra rest, while United makes a 5,000 mile round trip to play in the middle of a Russian winter on a bone-hard plastic pitch.
Benitez will hold court at Melwood this week, leading the analysis of Liverpool’s melancholy. Talk is cheap though, as the Spaniard found out to his cost last season. And short of a disastrous series of injuries to United’s playing staff it’s hard not to foresee victory for Ferguson’s men this Sunday.
Life is, as they say, a beach my Scouse friends.