Liverpool and Rafael Benitez: One Week to Define an Era

Adam DigbyFeatured ColumnistNovember 20, 2009

LONDON, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 31:  Rafael Benitez of Liverpool looks on prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Liverpool at Craven Cottage on October 31, 2009 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

It is only November, and yet for one of England's biggest clubs, the season could end this week.

It has been a nightmare start for Liverpool and their manager, Rafael Benitez, and it could be about to get much worse. Adamo Digby takes a look at eight days that may well decide how his tenure at Anfield is remembered.

Before we look forward let's go back to the start.  Back to June 2004.  Liverpool had just finished a distant fourth in the league, 15 points behind third place, and a staggering 30 behind eventual—and unbeaten—Arsenal.

In stepped former Valencia manager, Rafael Benitez, fresh from winning La Liga and the UEFA Cup. He was charged with turning around Liverpool's fortunes, and bringing glory back to Liverpool. He sold off a number of well-liked, local players in Owen and Danny Murphy, replacing them with relative unknowns such as Xavi Alonso and Luis Garcia.

Then, to widespread astonishment, he led the Anfield club to their fifth European Cup, beating Juventus, Chelsea, and Milan along the way. This left him untouchable to many of the clubs fans, willing to forgive many errors along the way. He had finally given the Kop something new to taunt their rivals with, after suffering, by Liverpool standards, a barren decade and a half.

Then another new start came in February 2007, when Hicks and Gillet took over the club ownership, promising a new stadium and funds for the best players. They seemed to be the ideal for Benitez; finally he could lead Liverpool to a long-awaited league title.

It proved to be a false dawn however, the ground remains merely a dream, while the transfer funds have plunged the club into terrible debt. The owners failed to back the manager when he requested players such as Gareth Barry, then appeared to sign Robbie Keane behind his back.

The club became a mess, in-fighting, players openly expressing their desire to leave, yet Benitez continued to work near miracles on the field. Liverpool had their best ever Premiership season last year, yet still finished four points behind the champions, Manchester United.

This summer Liverpool lost Alonso to Madrid, but picked up Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani. Perhaps this would be their year.  Perhaps now, Benitez could lead them to glory instead of more heartache for the fans, more misery on the field, more ammunition for those who believe Benitez to be less than advertised.

Already they have suffered defeat to Fulham, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, and Sunderland in the league, and lie seventh, eleven points behind the leaders. They crashed out of the Carling Cup to Arsenal. It has been no better in the Champions League, with losses to Lyons and Fiorentina.

This week, then, seems pivotal for both club and manager, with three games . It begins on Saturday as Manchester City visits Anfield. Defeat here would make a top four finish difficult. Not only would it leave them even further behind, but as City looks to replace one of the established "Big Four," defeat to them at home could spell disaster.

Then comes a Champions League night no Liverpool fan can be looking forward to.

Liverpool travel to Debrecen on Tuesday night, knowing that even a win might not be enough. If Fiorentina can beat Lyons at home, then the Reds go out of the Champions League at the first hurdle. Given the financial state of the club this will be yet more bad news for everyone connected to the club.

The last game of the three comes next Sunday at Goodison Park, for the Merseyside derby with Everton. By then, this game may be all Liverpool has to play for this season—pride and local bragging rights. That doesn't fill the trophy cabinet or satisfy supporters of a club like this.

A week to save the season then, and with it, perhaps, one man's job—maybe even his legacy.