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Rafa Benitez on the Ropes?
By MICHAEL PETERS, MOP Squad Sports Staff Writer
Jan 31, 2005 - 9:15:00 PM
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With injuries at Liverpool Football Club happening as often as dives at Highbury, Rafa Benitez is being questioned by media and Liverpool fans alike. Looking at the Liverpool line-up, at first glance you'd expect a team that would be fighting for the Premiership, not a Champions League place. Unless Liverpool can somehow step up their season, it looks like Everton will beat them to that fourth spot.
When he first came to Anfield, Rafa filled the fans with hope, after signing the likes of Xavi Alonso and Luis Garcia. Unfortunately, Michael Owen made his way out of Liverpool to become a bench warmer at Real Madrid. Most people would be disappointed at losing their main player, but with the form of Milan Baros at Euro 2004 and the long awaited arrival of Cisse, it looked like there could be life after Michael Owen after all.
Captain Steven Gerrard had been a hot favourite to leave Liverpool after Gerard Houllier was dismissed, but fortunately for Liverpool fans, decided to put his backing behind Benitez and see what Liverpool could actually achieve with him at the helm. The future for Liverpool football club was looking bright, and if the team gelled together, a strong Premiership run was on the horizon.
The season looked good on the first day of the season, with Cisse scoring after thirty-eight minutes on his Premiership debut for the club. However, it was short lived, as Tottenham manages to pull back a goal and hold on for the draw. Rafa had picked up his first point of what he hoped was many to come.
A home win over Manchester City was followed by their first loss in the Champions League to GAK, which also led to a defeat at the hands of Bolton Wanderers in a Premiership match at the Reebok Stadium. From there, Liverpool picked up two wins, one in the Premiership against new boys West Brom, and another in the Champions League against Monaco.
The week after threw them a game at Old Trafford against a Machester United side that was desperate to get itself back to form. Liverpool were hit with a huge blow as Steven Gerrard limped off during the match, leaving Liverpool to fall to a 2-0 defeat. The Liverpool defence was questioned for the loss, after both goals came from set-pieces.
Although they didn't have their captain, Liverpool bounced back immediately with a 3-0 thrashing of Norwich. Xavi Alonso was hailed as the perfect replacement for Gerrard after the match, with both fans and the opposition manager praising him. Rafa Benitez claimed he would have been happier had Liverpool scored more goals.
The next game, they continued to show a lack of consistency, losing to Olympiacos in the Champions League, and then to big spending Chelsea in the following Premiership game. The Liverpool faithful were starting to notice the yo-yo results that their team were getting.
The pressure mounts
For the first time in the season, Liverpool went on a five game run of not picking up any losses. Although a 0-0 draw against Deportivo kept up their inconsistent form in the Champions League. They managed to pick it up in the second game against Deportivo, winning by one goal. However, a loss to Monaco left them needing a win by two goals or more in their final game against Olympiacos to advance to the knockout stages.
A home tie against Arsenal the following match led to one of the best matches of the Premiership. With Arsenal still rocking from their loss against Manchester United, Liverpool took full advantage of it. Poor behaviour on Arsenals part led to much criticism, but an excellently struck shot by Xavi Alonso gave Liverpool the lead. The diving Patrick Viera equalised not long afterwards, only to have Neil Mellor score in the final seconds of the game, sending the Kop absolutely crazy.
Liverpool were showing that they could hang with the big teams in the Premiership, but they struggled on the smaller teams, either through lack of concentration or just over confidence in themselves. A 5-4 win over Tottenham the match after proved that spirits were high in the Liverpool camp, and they needed to be, heading into the game against Olympiacos.
During the match, they got off to the worst start possible, with Rivaldo putting Olympiacos ahead after twenty-seven minutes. However, in the second half, Liverpool fired one back with the substitute Pongolle equalizing the match. In the eightieth minute, Neil Mellor struck once again to need Liverpool only needing one more goal. Fittingly, Liverpool got that goal through returning captain, Steven Gerrard, in the eighty-sixth minute. Liverpool were through to the knock-out stages, if only by a hair.
Liverpool lost the match after to their main rivals for the fourth place spot - Everton - but proceeded to pull themselves back on track afterwards. They went on a four game winning streak, only losing to Chelsea, before picking up where they left off against Watford in the Carling Cup Semi-Final first leg.
The Liverpool faitful were then given a late Christmas present, as Morientes signed from Real Madrid in a 6.6 million pound deal. Morientes had registered in time to play the next match against Manchester United. With Cisse out with an injury, Morientes was straight in to the line-up to partner Milan Baros. With such a world class player on their side, a lot of people thought that Liverpool's inconsistent form would come to an end.
Unfortunately, Liverpool lost on Morientes' debut to a rejuvenated Manchester United, and were then eliminated in the FA Cup third round to minnows Watford.
After the loss to Watford, Rafa Benitez was at the brunt of it all, and a lot of people started to question the weak side he put out. Many were also starting to question the signing of Morientes, who wasn't looking on form. A lot of people didn't feel 6.6 million was a good price for an almost 29 year old player.
Southampton were the next team to strike Liverpool while they were down. Showing clearly that they had not gotten over the FA Cup defeat to Watford, Liverpool fell to the struggling side 2-0.
Still not looking their best, captain Steven Gerrard took the reigns in the second leg of the Carling Cup Semi-Final against Burnley, and fired them into the final where they would meet Chelsea. Liverpool finally had some silverware that they could look forward to, with the Carling Cup being the second best thing to the FA Cup.
Not long after, during an interview at a Manchester United match against Middlesbrough, Steven Gerrard cast doubt on the future of his Liverpool career, saying he was disappointed with the way the team was playing, and that he was going to look at the situation at the end of the season. With Chelsea hot favourites to sign the defensive midfielder, many of the Liverpool fans have assigned themselves to the fact that he will be leaving them.
Rafa has had a lot of injuries to contend with on his first season as Liverpool manager, but with the power his team had, should still have been able to keep up a more consistent season. The team haven't been looking the same in the last few games and it looks like the manager is finding it hard to try and put some belief back in them.
With the knockout stages of the Champions League coming up, Liverpool need to get back on their feet as soon as possible. With Everton in fourth place in the table - seven points ahead - and the future of the main driving force behind Liverpool on the balance at the end of the season, if Liverpool want that Champions League spot, if they want to win the Carling Cup, and if they want to get further in the Champions League this year, they are going to have to go on a run of form.
The Kop are getting restless, and Rafa Benitez is the one who will get the harsh end of the stick.
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