Mischa Wilmers’ Sunday column – Pressure mounts on Benitez as Liverpool slump to fifth league defeat

Last weekend’s thrilling action was always going to be a tough act to follow. Nevertheless with the big four all on show yesterday, we were once again treated to the kind of football which leads many to consider the Premier League the most entertaining league in the world.

After Arsenal impressed with a 3-0 win against Tottenham in the early kick-off, attention then turned to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. Ahead of their match, Liverpool fans were hoping to put their mid-week Carling Cup misery behind them and continue the form which saw them beat main rivals United last week. However, after yesterday’s performance against Fulham, it seems Coach Rafa Benitez and the Liverpool team are back to square one. The 3-1 defeat – their fifth in 11 league games – will have intensified the pressure on Benitez and added to his team’s mounting problems. The manner in which they lost is cause for concern too with Liverpool fans flooding football forums after the game to express disappointment and anger towards the manager and some of the players. Liverpool now lie fifth in the table and nine points below leaders Chelsea, themselves continuing their impressive form with a 4-0 thrashing of Bolton at Stamford Bridge.

In their late match against Blackburn, Man Utd ensured they continue to breathe down Chelsea’s neck with a comfortable if uninspired 2-0 win. Rio Ferdinand’s absence meant United came into the game with a new-look defence and worryingly for the England defender they kept a clean sheet and were rarely troubled at the back. In the second half Dimitar Berbatov scored what could well be a contender for goal of the season with a sublime flick followed by a thumping volley on the turn.

Most of the Sunday papers have chosen to concentrate on Liverpool’s lack of form and the mounting pressure on Benitez to turn things around or risk getting the axe. The Observer’s main headline reads: “Rafa Benitez under fire as Liverpool slump again” whilst The Sun dubbed the match against Fulham a “Horror Show” adding the caption: “Benitez fighting for future as Reds suffer fifth league loss.” In The Mail on Sunday, Joe Bernstein writes: “The defeat casts immense doubt on Liverpool’s ability to challenge for the championship.” Bernstein adds however that Benitez’s job is safe for the time being at least: “He goes into Wednesday’s £15m match against Lyon with assurances about his long-term future from Spanish-speaking managing director Christian Purslow, the man who now holds the real power at Anfield.” The manager was booed by his own fans after he substituted Yossi Benayoun in the second half but after the match he called for supporters to be ‘realistic’ in their expectations.

On the pitch, it is Liverpool’s shaky defence together with their increasing list of injured players which is believed to be the source of their problems. And with the Premier League’s top scorer Fernando Torres now added to that list, things are not looking up for the Reds. Steven Gerrard was once again injured for the game and their performance highlighted Benitez’s over-reliance on the midfielder. It is no secret that Liverpool are not the same team when they are missing their two best players and this is something they have had to contend with all too often this season. The Merseysiders will be without the pair for Wednesday’s Champions League fixture against Lyon and Benitez is faced with the challenge of turning things around in their absence. Whilst the Spaniard will be comforted by Purslow’s reassurances that his job is safe the managing director’s patience appears to be greater than that of many Liverpool fans who are keen to see the back of the Spanish Coach.

Another story which has featured heavily in today’s papers is Rio Ferdinand’s omission from the United team against Blackburn. Although the defender is currently nursing a minor calf injury, Mark Ogden speculates in The Telegraph that the knock may not have been the real reason behind Ferguson’s decision to leave him out of the side: “His form has been patchy at best, both for club and country, and there is every chance that Ferguson could have chosen to drop him for this game had he been fit.” In The Mail on Sunday, Mark Ryan reports that former England boss Graham Taylor does not believe Ferdinand will ever be as good as he was. According to Taylor who was quoted following his appearance on BBC Radio Five Live: “Ferdinand has lost his legs. I just don’t think he is – or will be – the wonderful player he once was.” Taylor concedes that his viewpoint is a controversial one and it does not appear to be one which Sir Alex Ferguson agrees with – the manager seemingly livid at Taylor’s comments. Ryan adds that Fabio Capello: “is confident that Ferdinand can return to his best in time for World Cup action in South Africa.”

Whether or not Ferguson maintains his faith in Ferdinand’s ability to return to top form, his omission from the match will concern the England defender. Ferdinand has had ample time to return to full fitness since the start of the season and he will be aware of the pressure to turn things around ahead of the World Cup. The United defender will be 31 this summer so this could be his last chance to achieve glory with England. But by consistently overlooking Michael Owen, Capello has already proven that he does not pick players based on reputation alone. Replacement defenders Jonny Evans and Wes Brown are both accomplished players at the highest level and it is now up to Ferdinand to prove that he retains the ability to win back his place in the team.

In other news The Sunday Times reports that Manchester United are preparing a bid for Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez. The 22-year-old is the captain of Ajax and has scored 54 goals in 75 league appearances. The news comes after speculation that United and Chelsea are both interested in signing David Villa from Valencia and it appears Sir Alex Ferguson deems replacing Carlos Tevez a priority ahead of the January transfer window.

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