Club Focus – Liverpool – Plenty of bets, but no slip

Anyone who has spent time a lot of time on Merseyside will tell you about the rumours, the stories that get passed on from taxi drivers to friends to families to your bookie. The stories get repeated so often, and each time with a greater certainty, that what should be perceived as fiction gets believed as fact.

It was around 10 years ago that Zinedine Zidane was seen stocking up on baguettes in a Birkenhead Tesco before his imminent move to ‘a house on the Wirral’ and inevitable superstardom with Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool. This mythical Wirral property was presumably the same one that was viewed by then Celtic boss Martin O’Neill as he prepared to take over from Houllier in 2003, a claim that spread as far as Scotland where the Daily Record reported it. O’Neill sued, and won.

It was arguably the most unbelievable of these stories which proved to be the solitary truthful one, as Robbie Fowler was brought back to Anfield by Rafa Benitez in 2006, and the Liverpool boss has proved to be inspirational material for the rumour mongers like no-one else.

Late on Wednesday afternoon as Benitez prepared his team for that evening’s clash with Stoke City, thousands of pounds was being placed on the Spaniard being the first Premier League manager to lose his job this season, forcing one bookmaker to suspend betting on the market amid rumours that the boss had walked out. As the story goes, Benitez had stormed out of Melwood – Liverpool’s training ground – after a row over that bugbear that has hovered in the background during his five years in the job, a lack of transfer funds. The fact that Sammy Lee was supposedly due to take charge of the team that night was the first hole in the story, as Liverpool’s assistant manager had been sent off in the defeat to Tottenham the previous Sunday.

With supporters using the story as the final proof that some people really do have more money than sense, they were largely unconcerned, they’ve seen it all before anyway. Benitez had apparently resigned on the day of a Champions League tie in the Bernabeu last season, while a bizarre story involving betting being suspended on Bayern Munich’s excellent, but expensive French star Franck Ribery joining the Reds was laughed out of town in the summer. Birkenhead’s branch of Tescos were left disappointed.

The current crop of Benitez stories – “1000% untrue” exaggerated new managing director Christian Purslow – probably centre around reports that the boss had only been given around £1.5m to spend in the remainder of the transfer window – a similar amount to what has been spent on AEK Athens’ triple-word-score of a centre back Sotirios Kyrgiakos, formerly of Rangers – and it is difficult to think of a Premier League manager working under such intense scrutiny and speculation about the safety of his position. Not that Benitez let it show on Wednesday night.

Liverpool gave a good impression of a squad that was together, focussed and certainly behind their boss against a Stoke team that didn’t allow them to score one goal in their two clashes last season – four points dropped which effectively cost the Reds the title. There was no doubt about which way the points were going once Fernando Torres prodded them in front early on. Torres was told by his manager to cut out the backchat to opponents and referees this week, if only those who like to invent stories would do the same.

Eighteen-year-old Daniel Ayala did well at the back, goalscorer Glen Johnson was positively electric up and down the right-wing and a frankly ridiculous piece of skill from Steven Gerrard proved the highlight. Matthew Etherington will still be wondering just where the Liverpool skipper is after a remarkable turn and cross set up Dirk Kuyt for the third. The performance helped restore a feelgood factor to the on-pitch side of things at least – as admittedly did the full-time score from Turf Moor – but the murkier side of things is never too far away. Amid the Benitez fairytale was another small, but vocal protest against the club’s ownership; a concerted effort by a group of fans intent on change, but whose efforts have lost credibility due to their sheer lack of progress.

They’ll keep plugging away, as will Benitez and his team. Perhaps Wednesday’s victory will be enough for people to keep their focus firmly on the pitch for the next few weeks. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Liverpool Club Focus

The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21

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