By IAN LADYMAN
Last updated at 20:20pm on 26th November 2007
Ever since his Liverpool team lost so meekly to Besiktas in the Champions League in Istanbul last month, the week they face Porto at Anfield was destined to be one which defines Rafa Benitez's season. Few suspected it could be the week which determines whether he has a future at Anfield at all.
A stubborn man, over the past five days Benitez has deliberately chosen to go to war with Liverpool's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett over the thorny issue of transfer policy.
Plan of action: Benitez gathers together his players at training yesterday ahead of the Porto game which will determine whether he stays in favour with Gillett and Hicks
A failure to beat Porto at home on Wednesday night will see the Spaniard losing a major — possibly decisive — battle.
As a demonstration will illustrate before kick-off, public favour on Merseyside is currently with Benitez. No surprise there. He is the coach who has brought a Champions League trophy to Anfield.
They, meanwhile, are the Americans who still have everything to prove to sceptical Scousers who require long-term evidence before being fully convinced that the owners are indeed worthy guardians of their club.
Nevertheless, the game of brinkmanship that Benitez began at his peculiar press conference last Thursday — and has continued over the weekend — has massively increased the strain on his relationship with Gillett and Hicks. It has also placed a significant question-mark over his own future.
Victory over Porto is critical. If Liverpool fail they are destined not to qualify for the second stage of the Champions League. This would blow holes in Benitez's persistent clamour for more transfer cash — failure to reach the latter stages would cost Liverpool in the region of £10million — and leave the manager more vulnerable than he has ever been.
If they win, Liverpool's season remains very much alive — they are still unbeaten in the Premiership — and Benitez can head to a December meeting with the Americans with hope that the issues which threaten the future of the club's most progressive recent manager can be resolved.
According to Anfield sources, Benitez believes he will be sacked by the Americans at some stage. Knowing that Hicks, in particular, was not impressed by the way the Spaniard publicly appealed for transfer funds in the wake of last season's Champions League Final defeat in Athens, Benitez has interpreted recent silences about plans for January as an indication that the owners are planning a future without him.
This was the reason behind last week's farcical press conference that saw Benitez repeat 14 times that he was concentrating on 'preparing and coaching the team' and indeed why he then appeared on the touchline at Newcastle on Saturday dressed in a tracksuit rather than his usual shirt and tie.
Insiders at the club have dismissed Benitez's fears as paranoia, saying he will remain part of the fabric of the club as long as he continues to provide tangible evidence of progress on the field and restrains from embarrassing himself and his employers, as they believe he did last week.
On Monday — four days after what will become an infamous press conference — Benitez began some belated damage limitation.
In the respected and well-read Liverpool Echo newspaper, a 'source close to Benitez' revealed that the manager was still planning for the future.
'Rafa loves it at Liverpool,' said the source, believed to be a Spanish man with a beard. 'All he wants is what's best for the fans. He gets frustrated when he feels he is not able to do that.
'But he is happy with Tom and George owning the club and has enjoyed working with them since they came and has no problem with chief executive Rick Parry.
'The manager has a few transfers he wants to get done, one in January and two Bosmans in the summer, but it looks as though he is going to miss out on the first one now.
'That frustrated him because the first one was a centre half, a position he really feels we need back-up in.
'The frustration stems from the fact that communication has been so difficult with everyone being so far apart and in different time zones.'
Whatever his credentials as a coach, Benitez has never been much of a diplomat and is an equally lousy politician.
Hence this rather clumsy attempt to pin the blame on the Americans for what he clearly feels will be a failed attempt to recruit AC Milan's Georgia defender Kakha Kaladze.
Nevertheless, it is easy to sympathise with his predicament. Despite their media-savvy, open-house image — in contrast to the bunker mentality of the Glazer family at Manchester United — Gillett and Hicks are, by all accounts, not proving particularly adept at getting to grips with the unique world of professional football.
While Benitez quite rightly endeavours to plan for squad improvements in January, the club's owners seem to believe the issue of New Year transfers does not really need to be addressed until the hangovers have cleared on January 1. That, of course, is naive to the point of being ridiculous.
At Old Trafford, the Glazer family may remain unpopular and mistrusted, but their control of the club has not been allowed to alter the working relationship between manager Sir Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill.
At United, Ferguson picks the players, Gill informs the Glazers of the price and more often than not the deal gets done.
It would appear that the chain of command is longer and far more complex at Anfield. In short, Benitez believes it is costing him players.
His recent attempt to independently secure the permanent services of midfielder Javier Mascherano — negotiating with the Argentine's 'owner' Kia Joorabchian about a £17m deal to turn the loan into a fixed move — has annoyed Gillett and Hicks, but Benitez felt that he had to make a point.
It emerged yesterday that Mascherano, seen as having a key role in Liverpool's future, will not commit to a permanent move until he is convinced Benitez is staying.