Club Focus – Liverpool – Rafael Benitez’s drawing board

Pity poor Montse Benitez, wife of Rafael, who would have been faced with an all too familiar scene this morning. Her husband will have scattered pieces of paper all over the floor of their Wirral home, each with a different solution to how Liverpool should have performed at Wigan’s DW Stadium last night. Sadly for the Reds, their manager’s plans never came to fruition, and a defeat that was as damaging as any Liverpool have suffered this season became depressingly obvious to the club’s supporters as the game panned out. They’ve been here far too often before, and Benitez woke up today facing his drawing board for the umpteenth time this season.

Make no mistake, this display was to rival Liverpool’s poorest of the campaign. It was the trip to Florence, Portsmouth away and Reading at home all over again. Liverpool never got going, and the contrast between the Reds and this season’s more impressive sides has scarcely been more evident. It was as though the confidence drained out of the team the moment that Fernando Torres’ early effort struck the post instead of the back of the net, and Liverpool struggled to create chances after that. Torres and Steven Gerrard looked forlorn – it was an evening that would prove Liverpool’s many critics right. That, if anything, is the biggest indictment of the Reds’ season. So many people have laughed at Liverpool and have a good right to criticise them – even their own fans. Serious questions have to be asked once again.

Questions that – for perhaps the first time in his reign – were asked by their manager at full time. Benitez was rightly openly critical of his players. In the past he would perhaps have blamed tiredness, the pitch or whatever else he could think of, but the Spaniard was much more open than usual at the full time whistle. He, like many, believed that Liverpool had turned the corner, yet the fact that they find themselves back in the same old cul-de-sac is as regrettable as it is inevitable during this entirely forgettable campaign. “I’m really disappointed,” he said, “the first half we didn’t do anything and we didn’t show the attitude that is required. It’s difficult to explain. At half-time we talked about the things we weren’t doing well – the attitude and the character. We made too many mistakes and played too quickly.”

That – believe it or not – it about as critical as the Liverpool manager has been during his five-and-a-half years in charge. The Reds were awful, they could barely string three passes together, and Dirk Kuyt’s mistake which led to Hugo Rodallega’s winning goal was sadly indicative of the evening. Kuyt has been instrumental in the Reds’ turnaround in fortunes from mid-January onwards. That he should play a pivotal part in their latest downfall was sadly predictable during a campaign when the ironic has become the inevitable.

The Europa League assumes mounting importance with each passing week, and Liverpool face Lille on Thursday night with a chance to establish a first leg lead in the last-16 tie. Benitez will be wary of France – the Reds suffered a fatal Champions League blow when Lyon’s Lisandro Lopez struck a last gasp equaliser in November – and Lille currently sit only two points adrift of Les Gones in the Ligue 1 table having been above them for the majority of the campaign. It will not be easy, but nothing is easy for the Reds at the moment.

Where they go from here is down to Benitez. It is the manager’s job to pick up his players after another damaging defeat. Yes, the loss at Wigan places Liverpool as outsiders for the final Champions League qualifying place in the table this season – a position vital to the club’s ambition and summer recruitment plans – but Thursday must now take full control of supporter’s senses. A trophy is still up for grabs despite the Reds’ awful performance last night, and if victory can be achieved in Lille then it will at least banish all thoughts of the DW Stadium to the back of collective minds for a while. Montse Benitez might even have a clean floor on Friday morning.

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