He will be called worse things by the visiting supporters today, but Rafa Benitez is a mass of contradictions. He is the control freak in charge as chaos threatens to envelop his club. He was the high priest of rotation who is desperately trying to field a settled side.
He is a supposedly defence- orientated coach whose team are unable to keep a clean sheet against opponents of any stature, a manager who has forged his reputation in big games but has lost each of the highest profile matches Liverpool have played this season. Benitez's devotion to the facts has become infamous, but the statistics alone paint a damning picture. Liverpool have lost six games already, four of them in the Premier League. A further setback against Manchester United today would leave them 10 points adrift of the defending champions. Four successive defeats is Liverpool's worst run in 22 years; a fifth would make it the poorest since 1953.
Under the circumstances, then, are United the ideal or the worst imaginable opponents? Liverpool's recent fragility indicates a nightmare scenario for all at Anfield, their fiercest rivals ending their participation in the title race before November. Yet they defeated the eventual champions twice last season, their only wins in 10 league meetings under Benitez. And who else could galvanise the supporters and turn victory into a common cause? Liverpool (the city) has been accused of harbouring a persecution complex; Liverpool (the club) have a record of prospering when underdogs. Forget the spirit of Shankly, it is the spirit of Istanbul Benitez's men require today.
Comebacks have been a feature of the club, as the vice captain knows. "You don't always have it rosy throughout your career, you have to fight to get to the top," said Jamie Carragher, who has certainly done that. "We will be written off for the Manchester United game, which is normal, but it is at the end of the season that judgements have to be made. "It is like being down at half-time you have to still keep going. In 2005 we had a terrible season in the league but everyone remembers it for the Champions League. Now it is up to us to show the character and fight."
Belief is a further requirement. Liverpool can lack the confidence to prosper without their marque names. Although Fernando Torres is expected to return from a thigh injury today, a groin problem could sideline Steven Gerrard. Thirteen months ago, Liverpool overcame United with a semi-fit Torres an unused substitute and Gerrard making a cameo appearance from the bench. Now, however, the supporting cast's inadequacies have exacerbated the importance of the two men who top the bill at Anfield. Torres and Gerrard scythed through United at Old Trafford in March; it is impossible to imagine David Ngog and Andriy Voronin orchestrating a 4-1 win in similarly dynamic fashion.
The failures of the fringe players have been accompanied by the underachievement of Benitez's preferred picks. "It is only those on the pitch that can change it. It is up to us to sort it out," said Carragher. It is a task that has proved beyond his central defensive partner Martin Skrtel, who was dropped for the Lyon game. The differing fortunes of England's two most successful teams are apparent in the managers' choices today. United's Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra and, if fit, Darren Fletcher, can be recalled. While Wayne Rooney is a doubt, offering the intriguing prospect of a return to Anfield for Michael Owen, Sir Alex Ferguson is still picking from a position of strength. Unsure if Gerrard and Torres will start and without Albert Riera and Alberto Aquilani, Benitez's decisions are unenviable. If there is a reluctance to expose Emiliano Insua against the speedier Antonio Valencia, Fabio Aurelio may be a first choice in two positions on the left flank today. Compromise is a sad necessity.
For a manager who long preferred to modify his team with the opposition in mind, it poses a dual problem: a lack of options and the difficulty in second-guessing Ferguson. There has been a hint of caution from the Scot, who has fielded five men in midfield away against Besiktas and CSKA Moscow and at home to Arsenal. It hints at a lingering uncertainty about his finest combination. Yet United have achieved 11 wins in 13 games with such questions remaining unanswered.
In contrast, after a week where most things that could have done have gone wrong, Liverpool's campaign has unravelled. With each loss, Benitez has polarised more opinions. Victory has persuasive powers: beat United and Liverpool will be revived. Lose and the paradoxes in his management will be accompanied by further analysis of the paralysis at Anfield. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org Liverpool v Manchester United, KO 6pm, Showsports 1 & 2