Rafael Benitez faces the biggest task of Liverpool managerial. Bigger than the motivational speech he had to deliver at half-time in Istanbul. Bigger than overhauling a 3-1 second-half deficit away to Luton Town on a wretched Kenilworth Road pitch on a cold January evening on FA Cup weekend. Bigger than convincing the Anfield faithful that Peter Crouch was fit to wear the famous red shirt. All of which he successfully achieved.
His latest task is to halt a run of four straight defeats for the supposed title challengers, starting with no less than champions, and bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday. Defeat to Alex Ferguson’s men would leave Liverpool ten points adrift of the title favourites and all but finished with their aspirations of winning it – and it’s not even Halloween yet.
Yet victory over United would only represent the first hurdle of many more to come if Benitez is rescue Liverpool’s season, plus his reputation (and quite possibly his job?). The Reds’ next three fixtures following the Anfield date with United are each just as crucial as halting their enemies from down the M62.
On Wednesday night it’s a daunting trip to the Emirates to face a talented young Arsenal side in the Carling Cup. Next up, it’s Fulham away on Halloween, where Roy Hodgson’s men won’t be needing masks to cause Liverpool some discomfort.
After the tricky Craven Cottage encounter, it’s the return fixture to Anfield conquerors Lyon, who sent the Reds into major crisis with a smash and grab 2-1 win there on Tuesday night. Take one second to recap on those four upcoming fixtures, and I’m sure you’ll agree each and every one are very, very losable for Benitez’ currently fragile side.
You have to admire the Spaniard’s perception on the controversial 1-0 defeat to Sunderland last weekend though. It would have been all too easy for Benitez to moan about the manner of the Black Cats’ winner, which clearly should have been disallowed for finding the back of the net via an ‘outside agent’ in the form of a big red beach ball. Those damn agents are everywhere these days aren’t they?!
Instead, Benitez chose to ignore the controversial incident and concede that his side were largely second best, only conjuring up their first shots on target in one passage of play in injury time. Simply not good enough from a team, many will now be too embarrassed to admit, greatly tipped to finally land the elusive Premier League crown.
If Darren Bent’s early winner at the Stadium of Light had been disallowed, Steve Bruce’s men surely would have eventually found a legitimate way of breaking down the Liverpool defence which, bar Pepe Reina, have been completely out of sorts all season.
When Fabio Aurelio saw his first-half header saved by Lyon keeper Hugo Lloris on Tuesday night, you sensed what was coming. Inevitably, not even Reina’s heroics could prevent an equaliser from substitute Gonalons amid a near-static Reds defence.
And when Cesar Delgado steered in the injury-time winner, Benitez cut a disillusioned figure on the touchline. God only knows what must have been going through his mind but I’m sure he was anticipating the headlines of “no Torres or Gerrard equals no team”, just as much as the rest of us.
Anyone who watches Liverpool often enough will know that is not the case. Indeed they beat Man United at Anfield last season without the pair of them, who are once again doubts ahead of this season’s fixture.
The reality is, Liverpool were not playing well with Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard in the team before the deadly duo got injured on international duty. Yes, they have both been on the score-sheet a few times this season, but the only displays of note to date this season are the 6-0 and 4-0 home drubbings of minnows Hull and Stoke respectively.
Returning to the future of Benitez in charge of the club. The Liverpool board have been notoriously lenient with under-performing managers, as Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier will both testify to. But under American ownership, the club has yet to face such a crisis, and who is to say they will not push the panic button if Benitez does not produce the goods in the upcoming four difficult fixtures.
If Benitez can get through United, Arsenal, Fulham and Lyon relatively unscathed, he will have jumped the first four hurdles of his biggest test as Liverpool boss.
If he can somehow overturn his team’s abysmal start to both the domestic and European campaigns to land either of the much coveted trophies, in particular the Premier League, then it will represent the biggest achievement he could only dream of before this all-important date with nemesis Ferguson.
It would be bigger than coming from 3-0 down to Milan to win the European Cup in Istanbul. Bigger than winning 5-3 in 90 minutes when up against it against a dogged Luton Town and going on to win the 2006 tournament in an epic FA Cup final with West Ham. It would be bigger than almost doubling Peter Crouch’s market value to £13million, and guiding him towards a successful international career with England. Something the lanky forward could never have predicted when he was relegated with Southampton. Landing one, or both, of the major honours from the position they currently find themselves in would top all these previous feats bundled together. Rafael Benitez would become untouchable, surely all the motivation he needs to turn this season around.