“Despite all the problems and fall-out, Liverpool will still finish in the top four and, in fact, the status quo will remain the same. I’m not convinced by Manchester City” – Mark Lawrenson

Comment & analysis round-up

Quote of the day: “In modern-day football the manager is always going to be the scapegoat, no matter what happens. It happens time and time again. You see what has happened to Gareth Southgate [sacked at Middlesbrough this week]. You scratch your head at that one because he’s a young manager and he’s only had three years in the job after going straight in from being a player, and three years is not an apprenticeship. But that is the climate we are in. Managers are always going to suffer. I keep referring to three years ago – the [2005-06] season when you all had me written off. I was past my sell-by date and should have been puffing on my pipe and the rest of it. It is just the climate we are in. I don’t take it personally because it is just the industry we are in. A manager is subjected to that.” – Sir Alex Ferguson.

Runner-up: “I think Steve [Bruce] should get a nice polite clap from the crowd when he walks down the track to the dug-out because of the sterling work he did here. But then the fans have got to get right onto the Sunderland players’ backs after that, give them absolute dog’s abuse, be relentless and get back to the type of fans that Steve inherited when he came to Birmingham. At that time the City fans were notorious for their vociferous support for the home team and also for the way they unsettled the away team.” – Alex McLeish.


Today’s overview: Liverpool, facing their worst run of form since 1953-54, remain the hot story across the backpages this Saturday.

Sticking his neck on the line, Mark Lawrenson leads the rally call for the Merseysiders. “Despite all the problems and fall-out, Liverpool will still finish in the top four and, in fact, the status quo will remain the same. I’m not convinced by Manchester City.”

It doesn’t take long though for doom and gloom to be showered on the Reds, as Terry “the goatee” Venables forecasts the end of Rafa’s reign at Anfield. “Every manager, even the greats, has a shelf life and Benitez may have reached his… Benitez has not enjoyed the best of luck this term, a fact highlighted by Darren Bent’s beachball winner against them last weekend. When something like that happens you perhaps know the writing is on the wall.”

Countering, Henry Winter is confident that Rafa is safe. For now. “One thing is sure, if Liverpool fall behind tomorrow, the United fans will inform Benítez that he’s ‘getting sacked in the morning.’ Unlikely. Liverpool’s power brokers have admired the dignified way Benítez handled last weekend’s reverse at Sunderland triggered in surreal fashion by Darren Bent’s shot clipping a beach-ball and wrong-footing Pepe Reina.”

Andy Hunter whips out his abacus to show how the numbers can distort reality when reviewing Benitez’s record at Anfield. “Tomorrow marks Benitez’s 200th league game as Liverpool manager… Only Kenny Dalglish can boast a better win percentage after 200 league games than the Spaniard, who is level with Bob Paisley on 113 victories…  For added perspective, Arsene Wenger won 110 of his first 200 at Arsenal while a pre-knighted Alex Ferguson is way back on 87… What undermines Benítez in comparison with his illustrious Anfield forebears is league championships won in that period. Dalglish had collected three inside those 200 matches and Paisley two.”

Thumbing over the history books, David Lacey identifies how Liverpool used to deal with adversity. “Liverpool used to get over problems of form and bad results by pretending they had never happened or at least not dwelling on them, such was the strength of the club’s structure on and off the pitch.” But it is this exact past which Ed Smith feels is at the root of the pressure building on Benitez. “It isn’t just losing that causes problems for Benítez. It’s the past – the triumphs of previous Liverpool teams. When I was growing up in the early Eighties, Liverpool were the game’s aristocrats. They now cannot face the prospect of joining the minor gentry.”

Some hacks simply cannot turn down the opportunity to play the blame-game, and Paul Merson leads the finger-pointing by hanging David Ngog out to dry. “Ngog is simply not good enough for
a club the size of Liverpool. He wouldn’t get into any of the top 10 Premier League sides. In fact, Roy Hodgson wouldn’t swap Bobby Zamora or Andy Johnson for Ngog – and Fulham are 12th.”

Yet arguably the most brash opinion of the day comes from Des Kelly, who attacks Liverpool fans for failing to get on Benitez’s back. “He is a man who is never truly called to account. Four straight defeats, the prospect of an ignominious Champions League exit at the first group stage, and a long season of doing nothing more productive than playing catch up with Aston Villa and Tottenham looms. But according to the spokesman for one fans’ group, the fingers of blame are being pointed directly at ‘two culprits – George Gillett and Tom Hicks’. Not at the manager, but at the boardroom. Benitez must do cartwheels of joy every day in thanks for the distraction they provide.”

Can Aston Villa break into the Top Four?

Stuart James investigates. “It is that work ethic, allied to the new foundations O’Neill has laid in defence to complement the threat the Villa manager has at the other end of the pitch, that have prompted the squad to genuinely believe they can finish, and not just sample life, in the top four this season.” Sandy Macaskill continues the Villa thread by looking at how Martin O’Neill has the league’s stingiest defence. “You only need look at Ashley Young and James Milner endlessly tracking back to see the support the defence receives from midfield. And what about Brad Friedel? The goalkeeper has the best saves-to-shot ratio in the league.”

Paul Merson, ignoring the well-documented facts that the Boro fans had turned on Gareth Southgate, criticises the club’s decision to fire their manager this week. “People say Boro sacked him because of falling attendances at the Riverside. If that’s true then it makes no sense. They are playing Championship football, what do they expect? In the Premier League fans paid their money to watch the likes of Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs and Steven Gerrard. Supporters probably paid their money to watch those type of players more than they did to watch Boro.”

Keeping with dumb-ass pundits, Andy Townsend makes the brilliant argument that West Ham can beat Arsenal until they can’t. “West Ham are not expected to beat Arsenal, but I think they are capable of doing so. Arsenal dominated the game against AZ Alkmaar but they didn’t put them away. Yes, the Gunners will probably win the game but until they get a second goal you cannot rule West Ham out.”

Lies. Lies. And more lies – it’s the Saturday transfer news.

Antony Kastrinakis should keep his distance from Anfield after announcing “Steven Gerrard has emerged as Real Madrid’s top target for next summer. SunSport can reveal Real president Florentino Perez will launch an audacious £30million bid for the Liverpool skipper.” In a similarly never-gonna-happen set of lies, Mark Irwin reports on how Chelsea (despite having a transfer embargo) have earmarked a new set of recruits. “Key targets include two midfielders – Inter Milan’s ex-Arsenal star Patrick Vieira and Roma’s Daniele De Rossi – plus Atletico Madrid striker Sergio Aguero and Manchester City talisman Robinho.”

And the lies continue over in the Daily Mail, where the pseudo-tabloid refuse to attach a name to their lead transfer scoop farting “Barcelona president Joan Laporta is reportedly desperate to sign Cesc Fabregas in January.” Staying with the Gunners, as they prepare to travel to Upton Park this weekend Sami Mokbel suggests the clubs could be about to do some off-the-field business. “West Ham star Valon Behrami will spark a transfer scramble next summer with Arsenal and AC Milan leading the chase for him… The Gunners chief is keeping tabs on Behrami just in case first-choice right-back Bacary Sagna leaves for Real Madrid.”

A faceless article in The Mirror toots “Tottenham are battling it out with Inter Milan for Ghanian full-back Gladson Awako. Awako, 18, who plays for Heart Of Lions, has become a hot property after good performances in the World under-20 Championships.” The Mirror continue to fuel the rumour mill by then stating that “Leeds have slapped a £3million price tag on Jermaine Beckford… a host of clubs are lining up to sign Beckford when the transfer window re-opens, including QPR, Newcastle and Portuguese duo Sporting Braga and Benfica.”