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Saturday, Oct. 24, 2009

PREMIER REPORT

Strange moves by Benitez have Liverpool in trouble


LONDON — Rafa Benitez has signed 76 players costing £230 million during his five years in charge at Liverpool yet he still relies on two.

Christopher Davies

Without captain Steven Gerrard and striker Fernando Torres, Liverpool is ordinary, as was proven again in the 2-1 Champions League home defeat by Lyon.

After five years you have to cope better with losing two players, but even with their dynamic duo the Reds are only slightly better.

Liverpool, probably minus Torres and Gerrard, go into Sunday's heavyweight showdown against Manchester United, which it trails by seven points, in the wake of four consecutive losses for the first time in 22 years.

If it is not a must-win game it is certainly a must-not-lose match for Liverpool, whose fans have shown remarkable patience toward Benitez.

Winning the Champions League in your first season buys you time, but Benitez is fast running out of credit.

During Tuesday's defeat by Lyon, when Torres was missing and Gerrard limped off in the 25th minute, there were signs of frustration from the Kop when Benitez inexplicably substituted Liverpool goal scorer Yossi Benayoun and sent on Andriy Voronin with five minutes remaining.

Benitez said he wanted "fresh legs and quality" — attributes which few of the Anfield faithful would associate with Voronin. Cesar Delgado scored in stoppage time, so the switch was seen as a failure. The grumble could become a rumble unless Liverpool beats United.

However, it is pointless to talk about sacking the Spaniard now — first, Liverpool can hardly afford the £20 million compensation on the recently signed five-year deal, and second, any top-class successor would not be available until next summer.

Unless Liverpool is suddenly transformed — snow in Dubai is as likely — it will not win the Premier League. Unless Lyon and Fiorentina start to play like Liverpool, the Reds' Champions League hopes will soon end.

The League Cup, which the bigger clubs use to give young players experience, could assume new importance.

After finishing second and losing only two games last season, hopes were high on Merseyside that this could be their year to win the title.

Mind you, they have been saying that for 17 years. While we must accept that Benitez knows more about football management than most, there was a collective scratching of heads at some of his summer transfer decisions.

To go into the new season with no backup striker for Torres was baffling, to put it mildly.

How on earth could Benitez possibly think that either David Ngog or Voronin could be an adequate replacement for the Spain international?

United has Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen, Chelsea has Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba.

Liverpool has Voronin, a Ukrainian non-scoring striker who was loaned out to Hertha Berlin last season and a young Frenchman who, like too many at Anfield, is simply not good enough.

Adding to the puzzling scenario is that Benitez has allowed top strikers Peter Crouch, Robbie Keane and Craig Bellamy to leave Anfield.

Having sold Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid — in fairness Benitez had no option given the player's attitude — why did the manager buy the injured (and little known) Alberto Aqualini from Roma as a replacement?

The Italian has spent the first three months of his Liverpool career on the treatment table, watching a sterile midfield struggle to create chances.

Make no mistake, Benitez faces the toughest test of his managerial career as he prepares for the visit of United, which will be licking its lips at the prospect of heaping more misery on its biggest rivals who currently look desperately short of confidence and self-belief.

Liverpool vs. United is always huge but this time it is massive, a defining moment in Team Benitez's season. To trail United by 10 points after 10 games would realistically if not mathematically end Liverpool's hopes of winning the title.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.


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