DUBAI // Liverpool have for decades prided themselves on being a stable club. It was easy to adopt that approach during their glory years under managerial luminaries such as Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish, but even when times have become more testing they have always shown commendable patience to those in the Anfield hot seat.
Rarely has so much tolerance been shown, however, than that which has kept the present incumbent Rafael Benitez in command throughout a distressing season for the Merseysiders which has fallen alarmingly below the lofty expectations brought about by such a solid English Premier League title challenge a year ago. Without hope of an elusive championship - it is 20 years since they set a domestic record of 18 which arch rivals Manchester United have now matched - since the early days of the campaign, they made disappointingly early exits from the Champions League and FA Cup as well as failing dismally to claim the consolation prize of the Carling Cup.
Defeat in Lille last week leaves them on the verge of elimination from the Europa League, very much the poor relation of the Champions League, and a embarrassing result before that - a 1-0 loss at Wigan a week ago - leaves them with an enormous task to claim one of England's coveted four places in Europe's premier competition. So, any further stumbles tonight against a Portsmouth club falling apart at the seams will put the writing firmly on the wall for Benitez and leave him more vulnerable than ever when his out-of sorts players make the short journey to Old Trafford next Sunday to face their biggest rivals.
Opinions are varied in the extreme about the worthiness of Benitez to extend an Anfield reign which has brought a reasonable amount of silverware during the Spaniard's six years in charge, notably that unforgettable fifth European Cup triumph over AC Milan in a sensational 2005 Istanbul final. Even in Dubai last weekend contrasting views were aired about the manager's future. A less than scientific straw poll among the "Legends" squad sent over to compete in the Emirates Airline Dubai Football Sevens went slightly in favour of Benitez - not surprising considering the continued connection with the club of those quizzed.
Spokesmen for the old boys were Jason McAteer in the pro-Benitez lobby and Paul Walsh in the anti-Benitez camp. Both spoke passionately of their desire to see their beloved club start moving in the right direction again. McAteer, 38, a midfielder signed by Roy Evans in 1995 said: "I like Rafa Benitez. I don't feel he has had enough financial backing from the Anfield board. "If they were to let him go who would come in and be able to work with those restrictions? That's what worries me about voting for change.
"Nobody has filled the shoes of Xavi Alonso [who was sold to Real Madrid last summer]. Lucas just hasn't done it. "Rafa has tended to go for players with potential but the players he bought last year have not come through quickly enough. They have not been able to live up to the immense pressure that comes when a big club is struggling to make an impact." Walsh, 47, a striker signed by Joe Fagan in 1984 but who played mainly under Dalglish, said: "I would change the manager. I think he has had plenty of time and money to bring that next title to Anfield.
"You have to ask yourself 'is the team any better now than when he took over?' and the answer has to be a firm 'no' so let somebody else have a go. Rafa is too cagey and tactical at times. "The players are not allowed to express themselves often enough. There was a period last season when they thumped Real Madrid [4-0] Man United [4-1], and Aston Villa [5-0] in quick succession. "He let them off the leash and there was a different brand of football which was fantastic for the fans to watch and enjoyable for the players to compete in.
"It was a breath of fresh air watching those games and it generated excitement for this season but unfortunately they've gone back into their shells again. "It came unstuck in the 4-4 quarter-final against Chelsea [the Champions League quarter-final second leg in April 2009 ] when they could perhaps be accused of being too adventurous, but I'm sure the fans enjoyed that more than what they are having to put up with now."
Meanwhile, Liverpool's plight could be having an adverse effect on the moral of their star striker Fernando Torres. The Spaniard has hinted he would leave Liverpool if the club do not make several big signings at the end of the season. In an interview with the Madrid sports daily As, Torres said "it's too soon to say" whether he would consider leaving the club if they do not finish the season in a Champions League spot.
Torres added that the priority for him is not finishing in the top four, but rather that "the club make an effort and bring big players in". He said Liverpool need four or five top-level new arrivals in order to compete in the Premier League and Europe. firstname.lastname@example.org Liverpool v Portsmouth, 8pm, Showsports 1 & 2