x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Make or break for Benitez

A defeat to Birmingham City could mean that the Liverpool coach is shown the door, despite successes.

It was 16 years ago when Liverpool suffered a similar sorry sequence of results. Five defeats in the first 11 Premier League games of the 1993/94 season saw one of their legends derided and eventually discarded amid the prospect of another season without the title. Rafa Benitez would do well to heed this painful period in the club's history and the fortunes of Graeme Souness.

Even the Scot's distinguished record as a former captain, winning five titles and three European Cups, could not prevent the supporters from turning on him and demanding his removal as manager in January 1994. In his own troubled times, Benitez has had the Champions League success of 2005 in his favour, dissuading those who feel a change is required. But, as Souness found out, when things go wrong, heroes are often quickly consigned to history.

Defeat, or even a draw, against Birmingham at Anfield tonight and that could soon become reality for Benitez. The Spaniard's team have lost six games out the last eight. His cause has been helped, though, by the inability of other top-four contenders to take advantage of their poor form. Liverpool will be back in fifth, a point behind Tottenham, if they can give Benitez a first Premier League victory against Birmingham. While a place in the last 16 of this season's Champions League may now seem fanciful, he is convinced they will remain among Europe's elite in 2010. "I am confident the team will finish in the top four," added Benitez. "The Premier League is a long race and we must keep going. We have to do our job against Birmingham and then I can guarantee that things will start to get easier."

Others may disagree. Benitez has been critical of former Reds who have turned pundits and constantly queried his decisions. Ironically, one of those is Souness, who has claimed that if the Spaniard been at any other top-four club, he would have been ousted with his track record. Striker Fernando Torres has a groin injury but may be risked against Birmingham. If he doesn't and, with Jamie Carragher suspended and Steven Gerrard out, Liverpool could be without the spine of their team, missing quality and influence.

Alberto Aquilani, the much-lauded summer signing, is likely to figure for the first time, but the former captain Phil Thompson says the lack of depth in the squad has hurt them. "It's very thin and that's where the problem lies. The players who have come in are not good enough," he said. "But I don't see any reason to change the manager. It's not going to help anything." The same could be said of Alex McLeish, whose own future has also been deliberated following the takeover by the Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung.

The Birmingham manager is counting on another Benitez to leave his Liverpool namesake with all the worries. The Ecuador striker Christian Benitez, Chucho for short, has yet to score since his £8.5 million (Dh51.8m) summer arrival from Santos Laguna. But he gave the Manchester City pair Joleon Lescott and Vincent Kompany an awkward time in last Monday's goalless draw with his pace and power. McLeish said: "I am hoping it is going to be like waiting for a bus. Once one comes, we get a barrel-load of goals. There is no doubt that he upsets defences and I am delighted with his performances."

akhan@thenational.ae Liverpool v Birmingham, KO midnight, Showsports 1 & 2