Sunday, February 01, 2009

Match Preview: Liverpool vs. Chelsea

Liverpool host Chelsea in a certified humdinger, with only goal difference separating the two title hopefuls. The visitors are lusting for revenge, but the hosts will be happy with victory of any sort.

With Manchester United’s surge to the top of the table, Liverpool have slipped suddenly to third place after carrying the lead into the New Year. Their form this month has been as average as the Red Devils’ has been electric, as they have yet to claim a single Premier League win in 2009.

Rafael Benitez’s men were on-course to rack up three points in midweek, until Lucas Leiva’s flailing foot felled Jason Koumas to gift Wigan Athletic a late equaliser from the penalty spot. It ended 1-1 at the JJB, and the Reds’ title tilt seems to be faltering fast. The manager is feeling the pressure, too, judging by his baffling post-match comments.

Thus, Sunday’s clash against Chelsea takes on extra significance, as defeat would see the Merseyside giants essentially drop out of the leading pack. It would also see them lose their unbeaten record against the rest of the ‘Big Four’ this season, a run which began with quite an important result in west London earlier in the campaign.

Stamford Bridge came tumbling down when Liverpool plundered a 1-0 win in October. It was the Blues’ first league loss at home since 2004, and a result which put the Scousers atop the table at their hosts’ expense.

From then on, the two teams intermittently stole pole position from each other for the first half of the season. But now both are on level pegging points-wise and hoping to oust United from their newly reclaimed perch, and Chelsea look the more likely to do it.

Luiz Felipe Scolari’s side are on the recovery trail after a near-disastrous holiday slump. Their 2-0 win against Middlesbrough on Wednesday was encouraging, and what better time to exact revenge on the Reds than when they (Liverpool) are enduring a malaise of their own?



Jan 28 Wigan Athletic 1-1 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 25 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (FA Cup)
Jan 19 Liverpool 1-1 Everton (Premier League)
Jan 10 Stoke City 0-0 Liverpool (Premier League)
Jan 03 Preston North End 0-2 Liverpool (FA Cup)


Jan 28 Chelsea 2-0 Middlesbrough (Premier League)
Jan 24 Chelsea 3-1 Ipswich Town (FA Cup)
Jan 17 Chelsea 2-1 Stoke City (Premier League)
Jan 14 Southend United 1-4 Chelsea (FA Cup)
Jan 11 Manchester United 3-0 Chelsea (Premier League)



Alvaro Arbeloa is still under an injury cloud, but the Spanish full-back is in the squad and could feature, but Jamie Carragher could slot in at right-back instead. Philipp Degen remains a long-term absentee.

Xabi Alonso, Albert Riera and Dirk Kuyt are all expected to reclaim their first-team spots after being rested for the stalemate in Wigan. That means Lucas, Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel should return to the bench. Daniel Agger has shaken off a calf problem and is back in contention.

Liverpool squad: Reina, Arbeloa, Skrtel, Agger, Hyypia, Carragher, Dossena, Aurelio, Benayoun, Babel, Alonso, Mascherano, Lucas, Gerrard, Riera, Torres, Kuyt, Keane, Cavalieri.


Ricardo Carvalho will be left at home for the trip to the North West, as the Portuguese defender continues to battle a hamstring problem. Michael Essien is still recovering from a knee problem picked up last year, while Joe Cole is out for the season.

On the bright side, Salomon Kalou – who scored both goals against Boro – has been declared fit despite pulling up sore after the clash with the Teessiders.

Chelsea squad: Cech, Hilario, Taylor, Ferreira, Bosingwa, Terry, Alex, Ivanovic, Mancienne, A Cole, Lampard, Ballack, Mikel, Deco, Kalou, Malouda, Drogba, Anelka, Stoch, Belletti.


It was Xabi Alonso who did the damage in the reverse fixture, with his deflected strike, and the in-form Basque star could be crucial again. His composure and intelligence was sorely missed in midweek, as was his passing range. If Liverpool want to make use of their possession, this man must start.

Meanwhile, Frank Lampard will be attempting to drive Chelsea forward from the centre of the pitch. The England man is having another superb season, and yet some have criticised his influence – or lack thereof – in the really big games. Time for ‘Super Frank’ to stand up and be counted.

Kuyt Has Big Phil Raving

Big Phil Scolari or Rafa Benitez, who is feeling the most pressure? That is the question doing the rounds of football at the moment.

The Liverpool manager has had a fair go at ­losing the plot, what with his rant about Sir Alex Ferguson and the pressure he has put on referees, as well as his pop at officials after saying the ­second half against Wigan in midweek was “crazy”.

Then there is his refusal to confirm that Robbie Keane has a future at Liverpool.

But as Scolari and Benitez prepare to square up at Anfield for tomorrow’s massive Premier League clash, the Brazilian is running his Spanish counterpart close for bizarre outbursts.

After his own attack on officials, Scolari ­yesterday named who he thought was the most dangerous player in the Liverpool team.

Most people would expect him to say Steven Gerrard or Fernando Torres – but, no, the Blues boss went for Dirk Kuyt.

Yes, the hard-working Dutch striker who has been converted into a right midfielder by Benitez because he does not score enough goals.

Scolari was full of praise for Gerrard and understood why he was asked: “If you stop Gerrard, do you stop Liverpool?”

However, Scolari had another name up his sleeve, saying: “They have one player who I like so much and nobody has mentioned his name yet. It is not Gerrard or Torres.

“No, it is Dirk Kuyt from Holland. When he was playing for Holland and I was the manager of Portugal, I used to think to myself, ‘Please don’t play him.’

“And if they didn’t, then, it was a huge relief. He’s a fantastic player and very dangerous. He works so hard.”

In lots of ways the point Scolari was actually trying to make is that Chelsea cannot afford to think of Liverpool as a one-man team.

He was either slightly deluded or playing his own version of Fergie’s mind games, because that is exactly what Liverpool have been in recent weeks, with skipper Gerrard pulling the strings.

Scolari knows this but would not admit it. When asked if Chelsea must ­stifle Gerrard to succeed this weekend, he said: “And Torres? And Riera? And Mascherano? That’s like saying my team is all about Lampard.

“They have fantastic players, the same as us. Gerrard is a fantastic ­player, one of the best in his position. Look, in England we have two players in this position – No.8 or No.10 – and you won’t find any better elsewhere in the world.

“Gerrard and Lampard are the best in this position. It’s not only Gerrard, though, that we have to beware. Okay, he’s fantastic because he scores, marks, dribbles, crosses. He’s the complete player.

“But the other players together help him to make this. I’m thinking about the complete Liverpool.”

This is a huge challenge for Chelsea, who so far this season have only taken one point from 12 off the other sides that make up the so-called Big Four.

That came at home against Manchester United, with the Blues having lost to Arsenal and Liverpool at Stamford Bridge and been thumped at Old Trafford 3-0 earlier this month.

Two wins on the trot in the league, including Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Middlesbrough, have helped Chelsea rise to ­second place, but Scolari knows that this could be a watershed game in their title challenge with United.

He added: “A win would be very good for us. We started the Boro game under pressure because we were in fourth position.

“Villa had won and the other teams were in front of us. For confidence it’s very good, but we know we are behind United and together with Liverpool. We are not better than these two teams, but for confidence it’s very good.

“We’ve played better than before in the last four or five games.

“We’ve won games, played better than before and have had more heart in these games.”

Scolari knows that if his team does beat Liverpool, he will be the next target for Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind games.

But the Chelsea manager remains defiant, warning: “He (Fergie) works very hard, is very good and he has mental ideas about this and that.

“However, don’t forget that we have a good team. That’s more important than A, B or C names. We have a good team.”

And they will need to show that at Anfield, for talk is cheap.

Alonso Looks Back To The Battle Of Stamford Bridge As Reds Prepare For Crunch Clash

Xabi Alonso feels of Liverpool's remarkable win at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season has been all but forgotten because of the controversy surrounding the Anfield club's faltering title bid.

Liverpool ended Chelsea's 86-game unbeaten home record in the Barclays Premier League back in October, and Alonso 'scored' the winner.

That goal has subsequently been credited as an own-goal to Jose Bosingwa by the dubious goals panel, but Alonso is still credited with the effort in Liverpool's own records. And that will not change.

Now Liverpool are aiming for a notable double over the west Londoners, which would be only their third League win over Chelsea in boss Rafael Benitez's reign at Anfield.

The clash is already being built up as a make-or-break game for Liverpool in their title challenge, having drawn seven of their last 11 League games and slipped to third place behind champions Manchester United and Chelsea.

But Alonso, rested at Wigan in midweek, believes that Liverpool have shown this season they can match the top sides.

That win at Chelsea, the victory over United and a draw at Arsenal back up his view.

Alonso said: "We've had some good results against the top teams this season, people should not forget how we won at Chelsea.

'Hopefully now in the second part of the campaign we can do it again and record more good results against our main rivals.'

With a trip to United coming up on March 14 and a home game with Arsenal on April 18 - plus the visit of fourth-placed Aston Villa to Anfield on March 21 - Liverpool cannot afford any more slip-ups.

And their current position, two points behind United and below Chelsea on goal difference, leaves no margin for error now.

Alonso said: 'If we can beat the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United again, that should give us a good chance of staying near the top and challenging for the title.

'These are important games. By beating our main rivals we can bring ourselves closer to the title than we have been for many seasons.

'Winning these games tells us that we can come face to face with anyone and win.'

Liverpool may well be on an unbeaten run of 15 games now, but the amount of draws in that run has given United - with a game in hand - the chance to surge to the top of the table.

But Alonso recalls the win at Chelsea to give himself confidence for the increasingly difficult task ahead.

He said: 'We were really pleased with how we played there and the win gave us a big confidence boost to take on into the season. Another win like that will again really boost us as we approach the run-in.'

And he still believes the winning goal that day should be credited to him.

He said: 'It probably wasn't the best goal I'll ever score, but it helped bring us three points and that is the main thing.

'It gave us what was our first really big result of the season, and we fully deserved it. I always felt, though, that it was my goal.'

Alonso, Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera - all rested to the bench for the 1-1 draw at Wigan on Wednesday - will return to the side.

And despite the controversy of the past month and Liverpool's problems on and off the pitch, Benitez insists he does not feel under pressure.

He said: 'I do not feel any extra pressure. I am pleased to be where we are because trying to avoid relegation is not nice.

'We are close to the top, we have improved the squad, and if we can beat Chelsea people will say we are back in the title race.

'We know our players, we speak to them every day and we know the decisions to make. And thanks to those decisions we are eight points better than at this stage last season.

'This has always been a must-win game. As they all are. After my comments about Mr. Ferguson we still knew we had to win at Stoke, those words didn't change anything on the pitch.

'The same applies to other games this month that have followed some controversy.

'Every point is important, it doesn't matter what is being said off the pitch. This season we are in a much better position than before.'

And if Liverpool do win on Sunday, they will see it as an omen.

It will be their first League double over Chelsea since the 1989-90 season - the last time Liverpool lifted the title.

Kuyt - Chelsea Is A Must-Win

Dirk Kuyt admits Liverpool must beat Chelsea and clinch their first Premier League win of 2009 if they are to challenge for the title.

Liverpool's only victory since the New Year has been the FA Cup third round success at Preston.

And after league draws with Stoke, Everton and Wigan the Reds have slipped from top spot into third behind Chelsea, with both sides now chasing defending champions and league leaders Manchester United - who also have a game in hand on their rivals.

But the Dutchman believes they should not be written-off just yet as long as they can recreate the same performance which saw them end the Blues' unbeaten home run last October.

"We have just got to win this game now and show we can beat our big rivals again," reports the Daily Star.

"We've done it once and of course we know that would send out a message to everyone - but we are out to win every game.

"We have had too many draws at the start of the second half to the season, and now the only message we can send out is by beating Chelsea.

"It's a big team, a big game, and we just need to win it."

The 28-year-old forward also believes fit-again striker Fernando Torres is close to recreating the form which saw him bag 29 goals last year having recovered from a hamstring injury.

"You can see every week how he is getting better. It is only a matter of time before he's back scoring goals for us again," Kuyt added.

Alvaro Arbeloa: Liverpool Will Thrive Under Pressure

The Reds' returning full-back loves the intensity of the title fight, and wants nothing but victory in today's crunch clash.

Liverpool have slipped from first to third in the Premier League standings since the turn of the year, and some pundits reckons their title tilt is on its last legs.

But Alvaro Arbeloa is reveling in the Reds' current situation, and he insists all of his team-mates feel the same way.

"It's really nice to feel the pressure of fighting for a title," the 26-year-old told the club's official website.

"This is why I came to Liverpool. Every player here wants to fight for the title, to feel this pressure and to play in massive games."

Liverpool take on Chelsea today in a contest which could make or break either side's campaign as only goal difference separates them in third and second respectively.

Arbeloa continued, "Sunday is massive for both teams. A draw is not enough for us - and not enough for them. We play at home and we have to win.

"It will be important after the last few weeks if we win and show people that we can beat a really good side. It will be good for us, the supporters and the media. This game can change everything."

Arbeloa has been battling a few niggling injuries over the past few weeks, but he has been named in the squad and could start at Anfield this afternoon.

Manchester City Eyeing Liverpool's Rafa Benitez As Their New Manager

Rafa Benitez is a shock target for Manchester City - with the club's Abu Dhabi backers watching his Liverpool contract stand-off closely.

City's multi-billionaire Arab owners are lining up a big-name manager as they consider sacking Mark Hughes, under more pressure after City's shock 1-0 defeat by ten-man Stoke yesterday.

Their interest comes after Benitez halted his contract talks. He wants full control over Liverpool's transfer dealings in his power struggle with chief executive Rick Parry.

The link to City will be a bombshell to Liverpool's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who arrived on Merseyside last night ahead of today's key title battle with Chelsea.

Benitez claimed last night that he "didn't know" if he would walk away from Anfield when his contract expires in 16 months.

People Sport understands Benitez is one of THREE managers under review by City's owners.

Inter Milan coach Jose Mourinho and Chelsea manager Luiz Felipe Scolari are the others on City's list.

The scrutiny of Benitez will cause more turmoil at Anfield with warring coowners Hicks and Gillett set to lock horns again this week over Parry's future.

Both owners will be in the Anfield directors' box this afternoon - albeit seated apart - for the first time in 18 months.

In the coming days they must decide whether to back Benitez to the hilt by getting rid of Parry.

The Spaniard blames Parry for a series of transfer blunders, including the £20.3million purchase of Robbie Keane last summer.

The Reds gaffer believed he could have signed Keane for around £10m - leaving funds to land Aston Villa's Gareth Barry for £18m.

Hicks arrived on Merseyside last Sunday in a bid to convince Benitez to sign the five-year deal on offer.

He and his son, Tom Jr., back the boss 100 per cent, while Gillett and his son, Foster, have faith in Parry.

It will come to a head at a meeting this week, with ex-chairman David Moores expected to have the casting vote over Parry's fate.

Benitez has been accused of losing the plot since his outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson last month, his team have fallen from the Premier League summit and skipper Steven Gerrard is facing a charge of assault and affray.

As he defended his five-year Anfield reign, Benitez played down talk of a first League title in 19 years.

He said: "How long did it take Alex Ferguson to win the league? Seven years. The Champions League? Thirteen years."

But with City's mega-rich owners considering giving untold transfer riches as the new ruler of Eastlands, the question is: Has the time come for Benitez to walk away from his Kop wars?

I Didn't Even Sanction The £20m Transfer In The First Place, Admits Angry Benitez

Robbie Keane is on the verge of a £15million return to Tottenham after being ditched by Rafael Benitez for Liverpool's most important game of the season against Chelsea today.

Benitez, who has also won important contract concessions from the club's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, effectively ended Keane's six-month Anfield career yesterday when he left the mercurial striker out of his squad to face Luiz Felipe Scolari's side.

Liverpool must win today if they are to stay in the race for their first League title since 1990. But the omission of Keane, 28, prompted Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, reeling from the loss of Jermaine Defoe for several weeks with a foot injury, to move fast to secure the Irishman as a replacement

Keane, the Republic of Ireland captain, scored 107 goals for the White Hart Lane club between 2002-2008 and although he upset some fans with the manner of his departure for Anfield last July, most are likely to welcome him back.

Spurs, lying 14th after a 3-2 defeat at Bolton yesterday, are unwilling to repay the full £20.3m they received from Liverpool, but the clubs are likely to agree a fee before Monday's 5pm transfer deadline.

The departure of Keane from Anfield is a significant victory for Benitez in the power battle that has threatened to derail Liverpool's title ambitions this season. Benitez was unhappy that Liverpool paid the full blocking his £18m move for Aston Villa's England midfielder Gareth Barry.

Keane has scored only seven goals in 28 games for Liverpool and publicly showed dissent whenever substituted by Benitez, whose preferred attack is Fernando Torres, supported by Steven Gerrard.

The Keane issue was one of the reasons Benitez demanded authority over chief executive Rick Parry in choosing how Liverpool spend their money in the transfer market. Both owners are in England for the Chelsea game and hope to sort out Benitez's contract concerns so he can agree a new four-year deal before they return to America.

Hicks met Benitez for lunch yesterday and the Liverpool manager is expected to meet both owners once Gillett arrives on Merseyside this morning.

The Americans, who have been split on several issues, have joined forces to try to secure Benitez's signature. One of the most significant changes on the new deal offered to Benitez is that he will now report to the owners on transfers.

A source said: 'There has been a lot of communication between the owners and Benitez in the past 72 hours. Some changes have been made to the original contract offer and there is a hope that Benitez will agree to it. The idea is for him to be in charge of football matters, and leave Rick Parry to do the commercial side.

'If Manchester United were in the market for two players who cost the same money, the board would let Sir Alex Ferguson choose which one he needed the most - the same applies for Arsene Wenger and David Moyes. The owners understand Rafa should be given the same deal.'

Keane, a boyhood Liverpool fan, will be distraught at having to leave but has been unhappy at the deploying role he has been asked to play. Benitez indicated last night that he had not sanctioned paying £20m for Keane, insisting: 'The club spent it.'

He is apparently indifferent as to whether Keane attends today's game, saying: 'It's a day off for the players not in the squad. We don't insist they come to the game.'

Redknapp Hits Back At Rafa

Harry Redknapp has insisted he did nothing wrong by commenting on his admiration for Liverpool striker Robbie Keane.

Reds boss Rafa Benitez stated on Friday that he was not happy with Tottenham following remarks Redknapp had made earlier in the week.

The Spurs boss revealed that he thought Republic of Ireland international Keane was a 'fantastic player'.

Keane left White Hart Lane to join Liverpool last summer but there has been speculation about his future and a possible return to the London club.

Benitez has regularly left Keane out of his starting line-up in recent weeks but Redknapp maintains that he had no intention of unsettling the player with his comments.

Redknapp is adamant that he never expressed an interest in signing Keane and has accused Benitez of overreacting.

"The comments I made, there was absolutely nothing wrong with them," said Redknapp.

"I don't know why the manager of Liverpool gets upset about everything - it is strange.

"I said Robbie is a terrific player and a good lad but he belongs to Liverpool so it's not a possibility.

"It's crazy. I never mentioned I was interested in him. It was never a goer really."

Tony Barrett: Facts To Prove All Is Not Lost For Liverpool Boss Rafa Benitez

Back in 1992, Elizabeth II made the annual Queen's speech notable for once by describing the year as her "annus horribilis".

For those of us whose grasp of Latin is only marginally better than our understanding of Aramaic, it didn't mean much, apart from the fact that it seemed a couple of divorces in the family and a house fire at Windsor Castle had darkened her majesty's mood.

Rafa Benitez – a man who can speak four languages, four of them directly derived from Latin – knew exactly what she meant and after the start he's made to 2009 he knows this year could end up being as horrible as Liz's was if every month turns out as bad as January.

In the first month of the year, the Reds boss has seen his team fail to win a league game and lose top spot to Manchester United; had his sanity questioned by all and sundry; had a third operation to cure him of painful kidney stones; seen his captain attend court and has had to cope with the knowledge that his outburst against Alex Ferguson has inspired his great rival instead of unsettling him.

December had been so positive, with 2008 ending on the high with the thrashing of Newcastle which was so impressive it even led to some of the Spaniard's biggest critics changing their tune and backing Liverpool for the title.

But, within 31 days of that magnificent performance in the north east, their hopes had been written off as everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, while United went on their annual winning spree.

Liverpool have lost momentum and some belief during January. Their manager has made some mistakes, with the timing of his tirade against United and the substitution of Steven Gerrard at Wigan being the most obvious.

Despite what some would have you believe, though, Benitez has not lost the plot.

He is the same manager who took Liverpool to the Premier League summit and who presided over the statistical improvement which made 2008 the best year, points wise, that the Reds have had since he took over the Anfield hot seat.

Like every other manager, Benitez is not above criticism and there has been plenty to criticise in the last four weeks as Liverpool have run out of steam quicker than Meatloaf running a marathon.

But sometimes disappointment can cloud perspective and there are certain facts, to use Benitez's favourite word, that suggest all is not yet lost.

Going into February, Liverpool have still lost just one league game all season; are currently eight points better off than they were at the same stage of last season; their current tally of 48 points after 23 games has only been bettered by three Liverpool teams since three points for a win was introduced in 1981.

In some ways, Benitez is paying for raising expectations. Had Liverpool had a bad November but recovered to get within two points of the leaders hopes would today be high.

But a bad January on the back of five promising months means understandable disappointment, and the voicing of fears the plug may be about to be pulled on another title bid.

Strangely, the first month of last year wasn't any better, as Liverpool also failed to win a league game. And, like at Wigan on Wednesday, they ended January with points being dropped, thanks to another late penalty – at West Ham.

But things did get better in the months that followed, with the Reds picking up 36 points out of the 45 available to them.

Benitez will therefore be hoping that the form his team showed in February, March, April and May 2008 will be repeated this year. Should it be so, 2009 could yet turn out to be Liverpool's annus mirabilis.

Meanwhile, Jermaine Pennant claimed Liverpool's Spanish manager turned against him because of his nationality, an interesting way for Pennant to explain away his own inability to nail down a regular place for the Reds this season.

His Englishness did not go against him when Benitez decided to shell out £6.7m (that's English pounds not Euros, Jermaine) to bring him to Anfield from Birmingham in the summer of 2006.

Nor was it a problem when Pennant started a European Cup final against AC Milan, one of 75 appearances he made for the Reds in his first two seasons at the club.

Everyone has their own idea about why Pennant fell out of favour so dramatically with his manager, with theories ranging from his ongoing struggles with punctuality to his inability to influence matches.

I have my own theory and no, it doesn't have anything to do with that infamous picture of the 26-year-old swigging from a Jack Daniels bottle.

The truth lies in statistics and the one which damns Pennant's disappointing spell with Liverpool most tells us that he scored just three goals in his time at Anfield.

It is the fact that he failed to do this to any great effect, and not his nationality, which made him surplus to requirements at Liverpool at a time when their manager is actively pursuing home-grown players.

He only has himself to blame.

Rafa Benitez To Sign £20million Deal To Stay At Anfield

Rafa Benitez is expected to sign a new long-term contract with Liverpool this week.

The club's American owners have agreed to give him full control over transfer policy. Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks last night arrived at Anfield to tell Benitez the valuation of transfer targets will no longer be the remit of chief executive Rick Parry.

And the owners are ready to sanction the sale of £20million misfit Robbie Keane, who has been left out of the Liverpool squad for this afternoon's crunch clash with Chelsea.

Boss Benitez (left) rejected an initial offer of four-and-a half-year contract extension last month because of his discontent that Parry refused to meet Aston Villa's £18m asking price for Gareth Barry last summer.

Instead, Keane's axed he sanctioned the £20marrival of Keane from Tottenham. Now Benitez will be given power to identify and value transfer targets within a set budget. Co-owner George Gillett will fly in today to seal the deal with Hicks and Benitez.

It will take Benitez to June 2013 and will be worth £20m. A source close to Hicks said: "The owners have had a number of conversations with Rafa Benitez on the telephone this week.

And they agree with his view on how transfer business will be conducted. Tom Hicks and George Gillett hope to conclude the contract while they are in England." Parry will now be asked to concentrate on the club's commercial side. Keane, left out of the squad for a second time, now looks destined for a return to London - if Spurs return the full fee.

Rafa Benitez Turns Into Gerard Houllier

When Rafa Benitez’s name was first put to the Liverpool board in October 2003, one director objected.

“He looks a bit like a Spanish Gerard Houllier to me,” said the cautionary voice.

Once he had arrived at Anfield the following summer, Benitez proceeded to dismantle any such fears, providing a welcome antidote to the erratic, paranoid ramblings which undermined the last two years of Houllier’s reign.

Deep into his fifth season on Merseyside, there are worrying signs of Benitez’s gradual transformation into the Houllier who departed Liverpool.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s an Anfield script for under-siege bosses. Talk of ‘five-year plans’ carries a déjà vu warning, while the old ditty about how long it took Sir Alex Ferguson to win his first title has become a timeless classic.

Like Houllier, the pragmatic, likeable and brilliant coach who won silverware in his first two seasons, Benitez has now become a perplexing figure, a man struggling with a persecution complex.

It speaks volumes when the most lucrative managerial deal in Anfield history is presented as an act which undermines rather than reassures him.

Naturally, he has found ammunition thanks to the behind-the-scenes shambles, although he’s as much a beneficiary as victim. Four of Liverpool’s six-man board wanted Benitez’s position as manager reviewed last summer, and the same individuals believe there should be serious discussion about his future this May if he doesn’t sustain a title challenge.

A defeat to Chelsea today may even test his alliance with the fickle Tom Hicks, who must agree to his co-owner’s wish to shelve Benitez’s contract offer. That would undoubtedly signal the beginning of the end of his reign.

Boardroom dissenters felt compelled to agree to Hicks’ demand for a contract extension while Liverpool were top of the league last December.

They also felt they were serving the will of The Kop and herein lies one of the reasons Liverpool managers are vulnerable to an ascent into presumed dictatorship. The Anfield dugout is acclaimed unlike any in world football. Once he has won the hearts and minds of the people, a Liverpool manager inspires religious devotion.

Houllier enjoyed this for a time between 2001-02 and post-Istanbul Benitez was afforded the same status. Both have learnt to milk it during times of stress. Benitez has played ‘the fan card’ so much lately he could enjoy a profitable poker career.

On the back of such affection, the affable, intelligent, quietly-spoken modesty which typified their early years gives way to an erratic, megalomaniac pursuit of self-preservation and self-congratulation — but not enough self-assessment.

Criticism used to be brushed off but is now viewed as an act of sacrilege. Houllier used to go through Press cuttings with a highlighter pen in order to dress down detractors. Benitez has appointed his own media watchdog, Juan Francesco, to report to him on every critical sentence uttered in print, TV, radio or on Liverpool websites.

The disintegration of Houllier’s regime was traced to the departure of his right-hand man, Patrice Bergues, after the 2001 treble.

Again, the parallels are unavoidable. Rafa’s chief scout Paco Herrera and assistant manager Pako Ayesteran were voices of wisdom who have gone, replaced by backroom devotees who react to every Benitez decision with gushing applause rather than analysis.

“There’s no one there to say ‘no’ to him any more,” said one Anfield source.

Add to this a cautious tactical approach. Houllier used to order print-outs of the number of shots on goal and corners Liverpool won to distribute to disbelieving journalists. Benitez trotted out a statistic about the number of goals Liverpool scored last season when asked if he was ‘too defensive’.

His press conferences are also becoming an echo. In November 2002, Houllier stated: “We have been a victim of our own success after doing so well last year. But it is good people had greater expectations this season.”

This month, Benitez said: “Everyone thinks this is the year because expectations are so high. We are where we are because we’re doing things right.”

Rafa would be wise to learn from Houllier’s fate. Anything but victory over Chelsea and a vast improvement in body, mind and behaviour will ensure the attention switches away from the boardroom and stays on the dugout.

That may assist the players who admit the pressure appears to be focused elsewhere. For Xabi Alonso, Liverpool have been talking the talk but not walking the walk this year.

“Playing well is what gets you respect,” he said. “If anyone talks too much and doesn’t perform, he is danger of losing respect from other professionals.”

After his rants against Ferguson, Everton and contract dissatisfaction, Benitez should listen to such sage advice. It would be a good start for Rafa to ask his media analyst to find cuttings of how he managed the club between 2004-2006. That was when he made a habit of overseeing miracles to win trophies.

If he’s going to end Liverpool’s wait for the title, he needs another one.