A thirst for Europe that has ultimately cost Liverpool dear

Football FanCast columnist Richard Buxton feels that Rafa's obsession for Euro glory has continually distracted
his mindset when it comes to domestic success.

Liverpool's performance against Manchester City really has summed up their
season so far – plenty of promise but unable to step up to the plate. Languishing
seven points behind league leaders Manchester United would suggest that the
title race is all but over for the Reds. Despite United blowing a 12-point lead
over eventual winners Arsenal in 1998, Sunday's result put question marks over
whether Rafael Benitez's side can bridge the gap over one of their biggest
rivals. The threat of Alex Ferguson's side equalling a league championship
record that has remained at Anfield for nearly 19 years is very much a reality and
it appears to be all doom and gloom around the streets of L4.

Too much pressure was placed on Benitez to deliver after a fruitless record in
the league since his arrival in 2004. The fact that many supporters see the
success of this season as ‘do or die' for the manager's time at the helm is
concerning as is the talk of potential replacements for the Spaniard. Idle
gossip and paper talk has done more damage to the cause than Benitez's self-righteous
rants about referee bias towards United. The Daily Telegraph claimed last week that the title challenge had been
derailed by the manager's refusal to rotate players. Pardon my ignorance, but
wasn't the general consensus that Benitez rotated players too much in the past?

Those supporters who have been slamming Benitez and insisting that this
season's performance is not good enough should perhaps take a long hard look at
what the situation was between 2005/06
and last season. Admittedly the squad was nowhere near to challenging for a
league championship and finances were not exactly bountiful enough to bring in
a player of Fernando Torres' calibre but significant steps could have been
made. In that season Liverpool were eliminated from the first knockout stages
of the Champions League, a trophy they were defending after their historic
success a year previous, and won the FA Cup. They finished third, nine points
behind winners Chelsea but one point behind second-placed Manchester United. The following season they
finished third again, level on points with Arsenal in fourth, 15 points behind Chelsea
in second and 21 points behind first-placed United as well as losing in the
Champions League final to AC Milan. Last season they finished fourth, nine points
behind United and seven behind Arsenal in third with a semi final exit to
second-placed Chelsea as their biggest achievement.

It seems that, domestically at least, Liverpool take one step forward and two
steps back. Benitez's obsession with reclaiming the European Cup appears to be
a key factor. It is not about mind games with Ferguson or an uncivil war
between the boardroom and the dugout that has been the downfall of the
Spaniard's side. His determination to emulate Bob Paisley's three European crowns
that sit proudly inside Anfield has distracted him from what Bill Shankly
described as the club's ‘bread and butter'.

It took two penniless Americans threatening to sack him before Benitez finally
sat up and took note. Prior to this he always had one eye on Europe and that
showed in his decisions. The club's supporters remained blindsided by it,
believing that by the time United were on the verge of stealing their crown as domestic
supremacists that they would outwit them and be sitting on 19 or even 20 league championships. The days of lauding that 18-title record
they held over their rivals should have been confined to the 1990s when fans
were clutching at straws as United swept all before them. Half of their 18-5 bragging rights – 18 league
titles and five European Cups – is most certainly going to be equalled this May
with United's 18-3, or even quite possibly 18-4 should Ferguson's side lift the
Champions League in Rome.

When those Liverpool supporters who adopted an all-or-nothing approach this
season sit despondent in the pubs around Anfield following the visit of Spurs
on May 24, having seen United equal their record, perhaps they should think
back to that one night in May four years ago and how things could have been so different
had their manager tried to replicate the domestic success he guided Valencia
to.