Benitez faces up to bleak midwinter as reality bites at Anfield

Never the most comfortable in front of the press, Steve Finnan was torn between what a Liverpool player knows his supporters hope to hear and speaking the truth on Wednesday night. "Hopefully we can still do it, but I suppose we say that all the time," was the defender's take on Liverpool's title prospects following their damaging draw against Wigan Athletic. Unwittingly or otherwise, Finnan at least captured the morose mood at his club.

The Premier League remains Rafael Benítez's priority this season, or so he says, even though a more realistic demand in August was to be closer to Manchester United and Chelsea post-Easter rather than sailing away with that coveted 19th championship in January. The minimum requirement may yet materialise but, once again, a summer of rich optimism at Anfield has given way to deflated realism in the Premier League by midwinter, with Benítez cursing misfortune, profligacy and a lack of spending power.

Victory over Wigan would have earned Liverpool 10 points from four games over the festive period and a return to equal Chelsea and Arsenal. While far from exhilarating against Steve Bruce's struggling side Liverpool were comfortable with Fernando Torres' lead until Titus Bramble converted Wigan's first shot on target. Now they trail the leaders by 12 points, face fierce competition for the fourth Champions League spot and suffer doubts over the strength of their squad and their approach to the main domestic prize. It is a dispiriting combination for a manager of Benítez's pedigree and ambition, and potentially perilous given his fragile relationship with Liverpool co-chairmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The Americans were not interested in piecemeal progress when they secured the loans for Benitez's summer spending, nor when they told him in November to concentrate on the resources at his disposal. The Liverpool manager will have limited funds available during this transfer window, hence the fact only a central defender in the £4m bracket is currently on the horizon, and will have to sell should he pursue more ambitious targets.

Hicks and Gillett's struggle to finalise the terms on a £350m loan to refinance their purchase of the club and pay for the first development work on a new stadium explains the budget restrictions, but the ongoing failure to conclude the £17m transfer of Javier Mascherano illuminates their lack of confidence in the Spaniard.

It was defeat to United at Anfield on December 16, not the draw with Wigan, that placed Liverpool's title credentials into perspective and the manager continues to generate his own problems at times. Against the Latics, for example, his insistence that he had played a 4-3-3 formation proclaimed adventure when, in reality, Harry Kewell and Jermaine Pennant operated as orthodox wingers and not a close supporting act for the isolated Torres. A solid three-man midfield of Mascherano, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso at home to Wigan highlighted Benítez's innate, and often unnecessary, caution.

When jeers replaced the silence at Anfield on Wednesday, however, was not the moment Benítez's relationship with the supporters broke. His position in their affections was made clear when the rift with Hicks and Gillett was first exposed. There remains recognition that, while his complaints over money appear churlish to most clubs, it is a valid argument when placed in context to the past two league champions. His copying of Arsenal's global recruitment policy at youth level, meanwhile, remains years from fruition. Unfortunately for Benítez, his employers are unlikely to be so understanding.

Reds' uphill battle


Most points any team has been behind the leaders at this stage of the season and then gone on to win the Premier League - Arsenal in 1997-98


Lowest position any team has been in first week of January and gone on to win the Premier League - Manchester United in 1998-99


Points Liverpool were behind the leaders at this stage of last season


Points Liverpool are currently behind the league leaders


Points Liverpool finished behind the winners last season


Fewest points Liverpool have finished behind the Premier League champions - 2001-02 and 1996-97


Most points Liverpool have finished behind the Premier League champions - 2004-05

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008

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