Time has finally been called on Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool career, after six years of highs, lows and mediocrity. Benitez’s tenure at Liverpool arguably peaked too soon with Champions League glory coming a year into his reign, creating lofty expectations that Liverpool, for the most part, failed to match. There were brief signs of the return to domestic glory that the Anfield club so desperately craves, but it never came, and now another manager will be tasked with delivering a first league title since 1990.
Quite how any manager will be expected to form a team to challenge at the very top of the table from a squad with little quality in depth and on a budget of between £10m and £15m is unclear, and perhaps the most telling legacy Benitez’s final season on Merseyside has left is that Liverpool are no longer considered amongst the Premier League-winning contenders. Expectations under Benitez gradually lessened, even over the course of last season, when optimism was rife in August off the back of a second place finish in 2008/09. The prospect of a title challenge fizzled out far too quickly, and soon Benitez was infamously, and, as it transpired, wrongly, guaranteeing Liverpool would finish fourth. As Aston Villa, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City pulled away from Liverpool over the spring months, the priority became ensuring European football of any kind, with Everton breathing down the necks of their red-shirted cousins. Taking a team from second in 2009, four points behind the title-winners, to seventh in 2010, and 23 points behind the side in first, is startling regression and there were few signs Benitez was the man to correct the slide.
Liverpool’s fall from grace last season was not brought about by any one singular reason, rather a combination of factors both on and off the field. The ownership situation, the debt heaved on to the club by Tom Hicks and George Gillett and the resulting sour atmosphere that enveloped Anfield, with battles raging between the manger and his employers, the owners and most of the fans and some of the fans themselves, who were divided in pro and anti-Benitez camps. But while the Hicks and Gillett nightmare is no closer to resolution, Liverpool can begin to move forward away from the boardroom. The new manager will join the club under no doubt as to the club’s financial situation, and cannot feel betrayed or undermined in the way Benitez did, with the not-so-private courting of Jurgen Klinsmann or the admonitions to keep out of the club’s financial side, which led to the memorable “I am focused on training and coaching my team” press conference. The new boss will start with a clean slate, both with the fans and the players, but Hicks, Gillett and managing director Christian Purslow have to get the appointment right after so much has gone wrong under their stewardship so far.
Where Liverpool go from here is a question that may not be answered until after the World Cup. With Kenny Dalglish taking a role in finding a new manager, a British appointment may be forthcoming and Martin O’Neill would appear to be top of the list. The prickly Villa boss has long been linked with a switch to Anfield and the unrest lately at Villa Park, combined with the yearly rolling contract the ex-Celtic manager signed, make the Northern Irishman a genuine contender. For a continental option, recently departed Real Madrid Coach Manuel Pelligrini could be a name to look out for, while former Hicks and Gillett favourite Klinsmann is still available, but after six years of Iberian influence from Benitez, and six years of French guidance from Gerard Houllier, a manager from closer to home may be called for. Fulham manager Roy Hodgson may also be in the frame, and he has experience of both big clubs – from his Inter days – and those working on a budget, but whether the genial 62-year-old wants the stress and strain of rescuing a floundering Liverpool remains to be seen.
Whoever replaces Benitez may have to cope without one or more of Mascherano, Gerrard and Torres, and after a seventh placed finish with all three at the club, and the financial situation continuing to bite, matters could get worse before they get better. With doubts over the futures of their key players, the deeply-unpopular owners no nearer to selling up and only Europa League football to look forward to next season, it is all a far cry from that one night in Istanbul.