Liverpool's miserable season got even worse last night as they were eliminated from the Champions League, despite a 1-0 win over Hungarian champions Debrecen. Any faint hope they had of keeping their campaign alive was erased as Fiorentina survived a late fight back by Lyon to claim victory by the same scoreline. The Merseysiders have the consolation of entering the Europa League, but most fans will not have much of an appetite for that competition. In truth, Liverpool did not deserve to qualify for the knockout stages. Yes, they have endured a certain degree of misfortune, such as the last minute equaliser away to Lyon, but the fact remains they have underperformed badly. Even last nights game highlighted the problem. Lyon and Fiorentina comfortably despatched of Debrecen away from home with 4-0 and 4-3 wins respectively, whereas Benitez's side laboured their way through the game after taking the lead, seemingly content with a 1-0 win from as early as the 10 minute mark.
Amidst all the gloom, it is the omission of the clubs major summer signing Alberto Aquilani that is most baffling. In recent weeks, Benitez has repeatedly assured fans and journalists that the Italian is (and i quote) "fit and ready to play". The player himself seems champing at the bit to get out there and start his Liverpool career. From the early stages of last nights game it was obvious that the Hungarians were there for the taking. With Liverpool lacking flair and a creative influence, the game seemed ideal for the introduction of Aquilani, probably in place of one of their two holding midfield players. But Benitez, for whatever reason, resisted the temptation. Even the opportunity to help him build up some match sharpness in the last half hour was again squandered. We can only assume therefore that Aquilani does not figure in Benitez's first team plans. He may not be a saviour, but should at least be given the chance to show what he can do. As it happened, Debrecen predictably worked their way back into the game and almost snatched a draw in injury time, in much the same way Lyon did 3 weeks earlier.
Liverpool fans have been patient, more patient than almost any set of fans in world football I would suggest. We understand that long term success is not built overnight. In the last 3 months of last season there were signs that we had finally cracked it. We attacked teams from the first whistle, battering them with flair, imagination, pace and creativity. The defeats of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa spring to mind. It was as if the shackles were off. And therein lies the problem. It seems that under Benitez, Liverpool can only play to their full potential when the pressure is off, that is when they are out of every major competition. When there is still something at stake, such as the league title, the Spaniard's natural instinct is overwhelmingly caution. He is a manager who seems to have absolute, total faith in statistics, graphs, charts and percentages. If his sheet of pro zone stats indicate that the game is not suitable for the introduction of Aquilani, then Benitez will abide by that. In other words, he lacks the fundamental managerial instinct to assess a game with his own eyes and make human, footballing decisions.
The phone-ins and message boards will be calling for Benitez to go, but now would not be the right time. If the club are to sack Benitez, they would need a suitable replacement. Jose Mourinho will inevitably be linked, but is currently in charge of Inter Milan, and more significantly, on a huge salary. Guus Hiddink will also be suggested, especially following Russia's failure to qualify for the World Cup. The Dutchman though has indicated that he is keen to remain in Moscow for the next European campaign, and also retains an association with Chelsea. Current Galatasaray boss Frank Rijkaard would also feature in the betting, although doubts remain as to his experience and tactical nous. No doubt names such as O'Neill, Hitzfeld, Dalglish, Klinsmann and Lippi will be mentioned. Should England win the World Cup next summer, Fabio Capello may even be touted. Whatever happens, I believe that any decision should be left until the end of the season.
Patience with Rafael Benitez is almost at and end with most Liverpool supporters. Defeat against Everton on Sunday is almost unthinkable, but with this Liverpool side it is sadly a very real prospect. The priority now MUST be on finishing in the top 4 of the Premier League. Personally, I do not give two hoots about the Europa League, and would be content for a reserve side to be fielded as in the Carling Cup. The FA Cup may provide a crumb of comfort, but if they can keep Torres fit, and finally introduce Aquilani, call me mad but I believe that there is a chance of catching an inconsistent Arsenal side and finishing 3rd. If you were to offer Liverpool fans the FA Cup and a 3rd place finish right now I'm sure most would snatch your hand off.