10 December 2007

Liverpool's season rests on next two games

By Alan Hansen
Last Updated: 2:15am GMT 10/12/2007

You could argue that we are going into the biggest week in the history of Liverpool Football Club. The importance of tomorrow's concluding Champions League group fixture in Marseille cannot be overstated and it is followed by a massive Premier League meeting with Manchester United.
Liverpool's short-term future is going to be determined by these two games. Ideally you would not want the defining moments of a season to come as early as December but that is what's happening.
Anything short of victory in Europe followed by the wrong result against United will subject those at my old club to a long, hard, dreary winter with little to play for. This is the last thing that they would have wanted.
Two wins, on the other hand, will set them up for the rest of the season. They will be right back in the race for the title and they will have the knockout stages of the Champions League to look forward to in the new year. I believe that they will respond to the situation they find themselves in and get the results they need to ease the pressure on those both on and off the pitch.
It is crucial that they have a healthy outlook in place at a time when manager
Rafael Benitez is supposedly at odds with the club's American owners and revenue is required to cover the cost of building an expensive new stadium.
It would be catastrophic if before Christmas they went out of the Champions League and fell too far behind United and Arsenal to make their championship ambitions unrealistic, because all the recent issues would come back to haunt them. That is why I wrote a week ago that the dispute between Benitez and the owners should never have been allowed to get into the public domain.
The unexpected defeat at Reading on Saturday has intensified the pressure. It was a match they should have won - and I still don't know how they didn't win it - and the three points would have provided something of a cushion against the possibility of Champions League failure.
Losing at the Madejski leaves them six points behind United, albeit with a game in hand, and leaves them vulnerable to falling too far off the pace should United go to Anfield and win.
Had they won, they would have been thinking now of closing the gap on United and that would have appeased supporters in the event of a Champions League disappointment - not that I think they will fail in the south of France tomorrow.
The Reading result has meant all the old criticisms are resurfacing with Benitez's so-called rotation policy back under the microscope. Reading are a gutsy team and they are managed by a superb tactician in Steve Coppell, but I watched the match and Liverpool should have won it.
I don't think the manager's tinkering had anything to do with them losing in the Premier League for the first time this season, but it does not stop the detractors from having their say because that is how it is at Liverpool. They are a big club and are always big news.
Benitez brought off his captain, Steven Gerrard, at the point when he thought the match was lost. He also substituted his two other key players - Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher - to stress how much importance he is putting on the match tomorrow.
Some might argue that to be 3-1 down away from home with 20 minutes to go is not an irretrievable situation and will accuse Benitez of sacrificing potentially valuable league points but Benitez made those difficult decisions because he thought it was the right thing to do.
All managers stand and fall by those kind of key decisions they have to make and a win in Marseille will enable him to say that it was indeed the right thing to do. Defeat, though, would leave him open to even more criticism.
I don't think Benitez's immediate future will be under threat if the next two results go against him but a lot, of course, depends on how the forthcoming meeting with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett goes.
Personally I think Benitez has done a good job and the fans are certainly behind him as they demonstrated when organising a protest march on his behalf before the last European game against Porto.
But everything ultimately depends on what happens on the pitch. Defeats lead to uncertainty which in turn creates conflict and friction and the mood at Anfield will vary enormously on what happens over the next six days.
A lot of things have changed in football in recent years but the one thing that has remained constant is the basic fact that results are paramount. It isn't rocket science to declare that if you win your matches all your problems go away.
When they won five in a row, scoring 21 goals in the process, nobody spoke about rotation or personal differences between prominent individuals at the club but as soon as something goes wrong then these issues come back to haunt them. They will certainly be haunted in the next week if they allow their two principal objectives to slip away from them.

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