Another season over for Rafa Benitez and, unlike two of the other three, it won’t result in a Champions League final appearance. Meanwhile, in the league, Liverpool have again been playing catch-up, unable to effectively challenge big-spending Champions League finalists Chelsea and Manchester United or indeed the more modestly assembled Arsenal.
He was in uncharacteristically forgiving mood after Chelsea’s win on Wednesday night, suggesting that his team were not quite good enough and that he will need to strengthen for next season. Usually Rafa is quick to berate a referee or opponent after defeat but this time some welcome humility was on show. Maybe it will catch on amongst the top four managers.
With two games to go and the gap to first place only 11 points, some might suggest that Liverpool have made progress this season (last season’s gap was 21 points). But this should not be over-analysed. By the same token much praise was heaped on Martin Jol for leading Spurs to a second consecutive fifth place finish even though the team’s performances had declined significantly.
Let us not forget that Liverpool finished 3rd in 2007 and at times this season the results have been abysmal. It was only when his job was up for discussion that he started to play his strongest teams in the league – a move which coincided in their best form for months. He doesn’t have the squad to leave out players like Gerrard and Torres and that is mainly down to buying players who just aren’t good enough (Benayoun, Pennant) or ready (Lucas, Babel).
If you gave Liverpool fans a choice between the top prize in Europe or England, most would want the Premiership. The problem with trying to win the Premiership is that its very hard. It is a strange anomaly that the Champions League is arguably easier. England have the best players and best teams – it’s just their turn. The group games are mostly a cake walk for English teams even though Liverpool backed themselves in to a corner by taking just one point from their first three first round games.
With the first difficult games usually coming in the quarter-finals (and only if you are unlucky) one could see why Rafa would concentrate on the tournament. The Champions League is his insurance policy, his best chance of winning a trophy that matters. It embellishes a record that would otherwiise read “one (lucky) FA Cup”.
Serious questions should be asked of a squad who can beat Inter, Juventus and Barcelona but consistently drop points against Premier League stragglers. Does this come from the top? Does Rafa, consciously or unconsciously, inspire his team to greater effect in the Champions League?
Rafa, forget the Champions League. Rest Torres against Beskitas and Gerrard against Steaua Bucharest. You have a more important game against Fulham on Saturday.