Benitez is back on the brink at Liverpool, as Alan Hansen argues “there is no doubt that Arsenal now have a realistic chance [of the title] this season”

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “I still think we can get into the Champions League. When Luka Modric and Aaron Lennon are fit and Jermain Defoe is available again after his suspension, we have a terrific team. People will question us getting into the Champions League but it’s nice proving people wrong in life. I’m not giving up on the Champions League, it’s not impossible, it’s all about a couple of points. Chelsea and Manchester United are the strongest teams but I would not write off Arsenal, Liverpool or Villa or Man City. It’s tight, [the top four] will be a good scrap this year between six or seven teams.” – Harry Redknapp.

Runner-up: “It’s all gone wrong with the manager. He’s shown exactly where his priorities lie. He wants to win the European Cup. He wants to be the man who wins the European Cup so he can get a job anywhere in Europe. I think after winning the European Cup with Liverpool he will get a job in Europe anyway but, for me, now, his days have got to be numbered at Liverpool. Why after such a great result against Manchester United, do you want to take a huge step backwards after losing to Arsenal in the Carling Cup as well? I don’t see where he’s coming from now. He showed me that he wants to win the Champions League and that’s all he cares about – because of the team he picked [against Fulham]. When I saw the team I thought that straight away, he’s not really bothered now. And I can’t see why he’s done it.” – Ronnie Whelan.


Today’s overview: More rumblings of discontent on Merseyside, as Rafa Benitez continues to seem to choose the wrong options in a difficult season for Liverpool.

Never ones to shy from spreading lies, the Daily Mail’s Colin Wood chimes with “Rafa Benitez’s future at Liverpool will be determined over their next three games amid growing concern from potential investors.”

Looking to hang the Spanish waiter out to dry is John Ley. “A sixth defeat in seven games and, most importantly, the fifth loss in just 11 Premier League games, leaves Liverpool and Benítez at crisis point. The manager can complain all he likes about his missing players and the rights or wrongs of the two red cards that reduced his side to nine men, but the facts outweigh the excuses. Fact: Liverpool have seven points fewer than at this stage last season. Fact: Liverpool have conceded 22 goals, 10 more than last year. Fact: This is their worst start for 16 years; in 1993 they lost five of their first nine. Fact: No team has won the Premier League with more than six defeats in a 38-game season.”

Sam Wallace delivers a stand-out theory in which the scribe argues that Benitez rarely lives in the present. “Benitez will not live in the moment. Rather he prefers a constant strategising for the future, no matter how much it costs him in the present. He seems able to make any sacrifice, as long as he can console himself that his actions mean he has a marginally better chance for the next match in four days’ time. He is the eternal hedger.”

Looking ahead to the crunch Champions League match at Lyon, Andy Hunter announces “Benitez faces an anxious wait not only on Torres for the Lyon match, in which defeat would probably put Liverpool out of the Champions League, but also on Gerrard.” Staying with Torres, Jamie Redknapp is hyper critical of Benitez’s handling of the striker at Fulham. “He has played up to that, but even the most ardent supporter must question the key decisions at Fulham. If Fernando Torres is fit to play, then he’s fit to play. Very few players in the modern game will be 100 per cent fit for matches. You play with niggles – that’s part of the job.”

In a questionable analysis of the security of Benitez’s position at Anfield, Benitez’s job is understood to be secure as Liverpool’s owners acknowledge that the manager is battling a debilitating injury list that has been a significant contributing factor to his five Premier League defeats this season.” A competing analysis of why Rafa is safe (for now) is delivered by Rory Smith. “Liverpool have neither the mechanism nor the means to effect a dismissal, requiring as it would a majority vote in a boardroom fractured beyond repair and up to £20 million to pay off Benítez and his staff… Even if the point of no return was reached, there are few managers of sufficient calibre to take on the job. Jose Mourinho has expressed an interest in the past, while Fabio Capello and Guus Hiddink may both be amenable after the World Cup.”

Fat-mouth Stan Collymore cannot help but get involved in the Liverpool debate in the Daily Mirror. “Rafa Benitez’s substitutions at Fulham were the equivalent of raising a white flag and the Liverpool manager’s supporters seem to be diminishing rapidly… Whatever Liverpool’s injury woes, with Glen Johnson and Steven Gerrard out, there should have been enough in the squad to go and get a result at Craven Cottage. So, sadly, I firmly believe Rafael Benitez has to get the sack from Liverpool.”

Arsenal’s win in the North London derby continues to focus minds, David Pleat noting that “Arsenal began sluggishly but ultimately their fluid movement and passing was too much for Tottenham, whose defensive doziness was punished.”

Looking at the wider picture, Alan Hansen talks up the Gunners’ title challenge. ” Wenger has not abandoned his principles, but he has at least recognised that the need to play football is not everything. Playing football is nine-tenths of the law for Wenger. The final tenth is winning trophies and, although a betting man would still say the title is between United and Chelsea, there is no doubt that Arsenal now have a realistic chance this season.”

Flipping the spotlight onto the Lilywhites, Tom Dart condescendingly questions Spurs’ top four aspirations. “They have hope and hype but games against Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea have brought defeats and three goals against each time. Yes, Tottenham beat Liverpool; but doesn’t everyone these days? If they are to reach the top four it will be through near-impeccable results against weaker teams, because it is hard to see them doing it by directly defeating their main rivals.” And continuing to kick Tottenham when their down, former Spurs striker Gary Lineker wonders how much longer King and Woodgate can be relied upon. “I am loathed to say [King] is finished because of one bad afternoon. He will have to show more lapses before being written off and a few weeks ago everyone was saying how well he was playing… King and Jonathan Woodgate would be the best pairing in the Premier League if they were both fit all the time and played week in, week out. But, sadly, they don’t play regularly and that is unlikely to improve as they get older.”

Mark Ogden makes the case that Manchester United are still the big dog in England. “Sir Alex Ferguson’s team are a contradiction this season. They are Ferrari without Michael Schumacher, Mike Tyson without the uppercut, but despite the blunting of their edge since you-know-who headed off to Real Madrid in the summer, Manchester United remain one win away from reclaiming top spot in the Premier League. If that victory comes against Chelsea in six days’ time, then the question marks over United’s credentials without Cristiano Ronaldo will have to be banished. Results are the key factor and, no matter how they come, it’s achieving them that matters.”

Stan Collymore also voices his opinion on United, advising Sir Alex to sell Rio Ferdinand. “Rio Ferdinand has been in poor form this season by his standards and I think Sir Alex Ferguson would be shrewd to cash in on the star in January… while he has had some great years at United since joining in July 2002 from Leeds for £30million, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shipped out soon.”

Surly Scot Patrick Barclay wonders what would happen if footballers were forced to measure up against a fit and proper test. “If there were a ‘fit and proper person’ test for players – why should directors be singled out? – King and Barton would fail, clearing space for aspirant role models.”

Turning to Spain, injects some common sense into assessing Manuel Pellegrini’s standing at Real Madrid. “You can also see Pellegrini’s glass as half-full… Ronaldo will be back soon. Benzema is 21 and has just arrived, and, even if it takes him a while to settle, Real have plenty of options up front. As for relying on individuals, that’s a function of Pellegrini’s rotation, which is likely to pay dividends down the road if the team go into the spring relatively fresh and rested. Still, Pellegrini must know that every step from here on in is bound to be a tentative one. That’s what happens when you’re the coach of Real Madrid.”

TV observer Martin Kelner comments on Sky presenter Jeff Stelling’s new hair-do. “When he was merely an anorak with an unnatural interest in Brighton & Hove Albion’s recent results sequence and the name of Kilmarnock’s second-choice goalkeeper, the football folk had the upper hand, and Jeff tended to be on the receiving end of much good-natured banter; but now he is the elegantly coiffed monarch of all he surveys, might that not change?”

Staying with the box, Robin Scott-Elliot discusses the world of club TV channels. “Entering the world of club television channels is to leap into a parallel universe. It’s football but not as we know it; it’s all coasting and no rolling. A world of halos, old heroes and the top 10 victories over Fulham on Liverpool TV… By and large club channels would not offend North Korea. It’s Totalitarian TV.”

After Owen Hargreaves, could England be set to snare another Anglo-German? Matt Lawton breaks the news that “the Football Association have their eyes on one of German football’s emerging stars and may try to poach him for England. Aaron Hunt was born in Germany and has represented that country 26 times at Under 16, Under 17 and Under 21 level, but the fact that he has an English mother has prompted England Under 21 coach Stuart Pearce to examine his situation.”

In the sack race Martin Blackburn farts “Hull boss Phil Brown will be given 90 minutes to save his job.”

Onto the transfers, where Rob Draper touts the old rumour that “German international Manuel Neuer looks increasingly likely to be the true successor to Edwin van der Sar at Manchester United, with a renewed bid for the Schalke goalkeeper expected next summer, but possibly as soon as January to head off interest from Bayern Munich.”

According to Alan Nixon, “Chelsea will make a £33million bid for Valencia’s super Spanish striker David Villa – but he would rather go to rivals Manchester United.” Elsewhere, John Cross chimes that “Mark Hughes is believed to have his sights on Osasuna’s 20-year-old right back Cesar Azpilicueta, the £10m-rated Spanish under-21 international.”