Every manager is under heavy scrutiny as the season comes to an end, but Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is under particular pressure due to how far the Reds have performed below expectations this season. No matter the lack of funds available for transfers last summer, and the loss of such an important player as Xabi Alonso, most people, including the players, expected Liverpool to be at least competitive in the league this season. The fact that they haven’t been and that Liverpool are now struggling to get fourth place, means every decision that Rafa makes will be under even greater focus.
The decision to take off Fernando Torres after 65 minutes against Birmingham City on Sunday was certainly the most contentious decision Benitez has made all season. Whether you are a pro or anti Rafa, the question of motivation for the decision really does have to be asked. Some of those against Rafa will say that he has just lost the plot, but there is definitely more to it than that. The fact remains that Rafa bought Torres for £20million and is well aware of his abilities to change games, and the decision to take Torres off against Birmingham would have been very difficult as Rafa knows that Nando can make something from nothing and score a valuable goal.
Benitez offered the explanation of tiredness after the match. To most people, such a reason seems perplexing considering the Birmingham match was such an important game in the context of the race for fourth. But there is another way of looking at the comments. If Torres was tired, is Benitez saving him up for another match? In my opinion by making the decision to take off Torres after 65 minutes, Rafa has clearly prioritised the Benfica match on Thursday. Considering he played 80 minutes in the first leg, and had to run ragged playing the majority of the game up front on his own after the Reds went down to ten men early in the match, it seems quite clear which match was more important to the Liverpool manager. Letting Torres be kicked around for most of the match showed how important the Europa League quarter final tie was. If he was going to prioritise the Birmingham match over the Benfica tie, he would have fielded a weakened side in Portugal and played Torres for an hour, especially when Liverpool had one sent off. Yet he didn’t, indicating that his priority is with the European competition rather than fourth place.
Perhaps Rafa is right to do this. Liverpool haven’t won a major trophy since the 2006 FA Cup and we are certainly outsiders for fourth, considering both Tottenham and Manchester City have games in hand over the Reds and are still ahead of us in table. However, when Tottenham lost to Sunderland at the weekend, it gave us a great opportunity to catch up and we let that chance slip through our grasp on Sunday. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe Rafa has given up on fourth spot and I know the team will give their all to win the last five games, but the decision to sub Torres does reveal he is willing to risk it in pursuit of a trophy. In fact I would love for us to win a trophy this year, even if it was the Europa League, but I think the decision to sub Torres was one too far. I believe whole heartedly that if Torres was in David Ngog’s position on Sunday, that we would have come away with three points from St Andrews.
In the end though, Rafa would have been slaughtered either way. He is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he had fielded a weakened team in both legs against Benfica, he would have been slated for giving up on Liverpool’s only chance of a trophy this season. Instead he has been criticised for taking off Torres in a crucial match in the race for fourth. Who would be a manager of a football club in this day and age?