Rafa for Life? It’s more like a life sentence for Liverpool

Football writing is more often than not locked in the present, the now. There’s no perspective, and while this helps sells more newspaper copies (and gets more pageviews), it also means that readers are told a pack of half-truths and absolute lies every day of the week.

So when Liverpool went on a rampage in the second half of last season, pilfering 4 goals a game against the top European sides for fun, it was easy to sell the public the idea that Liverpool, under the guidance of Rafael Benitez and lead by the admirable duo of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, had turned an important corner in their recent history.

They were genuine title contenders now, not content with merely scrapping for 4th place. They could do what Arsenal had failed to do for four years and what even Chelsea had failed to do for three. They could win the title, and all that was needed was a full season and maybe one or two more signings.

A shocking lack of perspective

Leaving aside the question of signings for a second (we’ll get to this later), think about this for a minute.

A group that has failed to mount a credible season-long title challenge for 5 years was now expected to beat the likes of:

  • Arsenal: Champions as recently as 2004, runners up in 2005 and till the second half of the 2007/2008 season, front-runners for the title race in that season.
  • Chelsea: back to back league titles in 2005 and 2006, runners up in 2007 and genuinely the strongest side on paper at the start of the new season.
  • Manchester United: Champions for three – THREE! – years in a row.

And yet pundits ignored the inherent flaw in this thinking, and insisted on focusing on the shortcomings of all three rivals. Arsenal were pre-school toddlers, Chelsea were OAPs, Manchester United had lost Tevez and Ronaldo and after three titles, maybe they’d get bored of winning.

And Liverpool? Liverpool were hungry warriors, the slayers of Manchester United and Real Madrid (the two biggest football brands around the world) and were far more than the sum of their parts.

Except that wasn’t exactly true, was it?

But the people got sucked in by this story because that was the most beautiful story that could be painted at the start of the season. This was even bigger than Arsenal’s kids heroically defying the odds (and a self-inflicted lack of mental strength and experience). This was football coming home, away from the new ‘Evil’ ruling duo of Manchester United and Chelsea, back to the old ‘Evil’ ruler – Liverpool.

It’s painful to see children cry – when their dreams have been broken. There’s no joy in watching grown men and women suffer either – footballing loyalties aside, there’s no joy in watching a team doing so well plumbing to mediocrity soon afterwards. Good football is good to watch, and we are starved for great football, even if it was Liverpool serving it up and not our own teams.

A season of excuses

The excuses have come in thick and fast this season, from ownership issues to injuries to plain old bad luck. The thing with excuses is that you can’t fool people all the time with them, and there’s is nothing in Rafael Benitez’s bag of excuses that can account for how Liverpool have performed this season.

And if we’re being harsh, there’s good reason to it. Last year after beating United home and away Rafael Benitez was bullish about Liverpool’s ability to mount an effective title challenge, of Liverpool’s ability to ‘mix it up’ with the big boys. The club have spectacularly failed to live up to their own manager’s expectations, let alone the expectations of the fans or pundits.

The league position is not a disaster but the top 3 are effectively out of sight and Liverpool are out of both domestic competitions as well as the only European competition that mattered to them. The Europa League is a good competition but for second-tier teams, and Liverpool’s aspirations and Rafa’s public proclamations over the last two seasons posit Liverpool as one of the best clubs in Europe, not one relegated to the Europa League.

Injuries? Lack of signings? Just 7 months ago, before the start of this season, Liverpool fans were bullish about the ‘losses’ United had sustained and the fact that neither Arsenal nor Chelsea looked to be dangerous enough to beat the Liverpool of last season. Effectively not much has changed since then, and more than their perceived dependence on Xabi Alonso, the events of this season have proven that last season was Liverpool’s zenith, not the base for future successes.

In Rafa We Trust

Rafael Benitez ended the 08/09 season at the top – he had (seemingly) turned Liverpool into title contenders, he had dominated Manchester United home and away, he had even manouevered to get Rick Parry out of the boardroom. He was king of Liverpool with a plumb 5 year contract in his hands and the full backing of Liverpool fans and the press too. Optimism at Liverpool was at its peak since that remarkable 2005 final, only this team they had performed in the league as well.

Except that Liverpool and Rafael Benitez still haven’t won anything beyond the Champions League in 2005 and the FA Cup in 2006 (both delivered, in differing manners, by Steven Gerrard) and even if Liverpool can win the Europa League and finish 4th this season, the expectations had been raised so high by Rafa that it would still be a failure for the Merseyside club.

Rafa has been very careful this season – right from the start – not to say anything controversial that would upset the press or fans. Unlike the brash Rafa we saw last season, Rafa of 09/10 has been subdued in public, mainly because he knows that the bluff is up.

Tactically Liverpool were excellent in the last two seasons, but as it happens in football with every team, once the opposition figures out how to neutralise your gameplan it comes down to quality, mental strength and the flexibility of your tactics. Rafa has been vilified by a handful of past players for being too rigid, too stuck to one way of doing things. That strength of purpose served him well in the last two years, but it’s over now. Opposition managers know what Rafa will try and can pick his team off the park with ease.

Rafa for life? Opposition fans would love nothing else.

Also Read: Batting for Rafa.

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