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Dec 23, 2009

Ian Rush: Reds must retain faith in Rafa Benitez

These are dark days for Liverpool. A club so accustomed to success are out of the Champions League before Christmas, have just four wins in 17 games in all competitions and sit eight points behind fourth-placed Aston Villa. There is no doubt that this is the most crucial juncture of Rafael Benitez's career at Anfield.

Even amongst the staunchly loyal cabal that is ex-Liverpool players, cracks have appeared. Graeme Souness recently angered Benitez by voicing fears about a potential "meltdown" while Ronnie Whelan delivered a very personal attack on the Spaniard, culminating in the declaration that "his days have got to be numbered".

But while certain pundits grumble and the media feverishly speculates on how long Benitez has left in the post, a man who played with both Souness and Whelan in the great Liverpool teams of the 1980s remains adamant that the club must keep faith with the manager who has won the Champions League and FA Cup since arriving from Valencia in 2004, but failed to claim the Holy Grail of the league title.

Ian Rush, scorer of a club-record 346 goals in 660 games for Liverpool, has questioned the wisdom of changing managers halfway through the season and has urged owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett to withhold judgement until the club's fate is known for sure at the conclusion of the campaign.

"I think you have got to get behind the manager rather than go against him," Rush told ESPN Soccnernet. "It is easy to criticise when you lose and it is easy to be behind managers when they are winning. This is a time to stick together.

"I think when you are winning, then you ask questions, but at the moment you have got to stay united, group together and look at the situation at the end of the season or when we are guaranteed fourth or not finishing in fourth. Halfway through you have to get behind the manager. He says we will finish fourth and I still believe we will finish fourth.

"I don't think [a bad Christmas] will spell the end of him. You have to think long and hard and think if you replace him, who will you replace him with and are they going to do any better? Who is available? There is a lot to be asked there. Will they get any money in January to strengthen the squad? Only the owners and manager know that and we have to rely on them and what they are doing is right."

Despite such a poor run of form, Liverpool fans have still demonstrated their support for Benitez on numerous occasions and some have preferred to paint the American owners of the club as the villains of the piece.

Having presided over a number of PR disasters since arriving on Merseyside in February 2007, including admitting they had sounded out Jurgen Klinsmann as a possible replacement for Benitez, Hicks and Gillett also stand accused by some supporters of denying their manager the funds he requires to turn Liverpool into a title-winning side.

But Rush feels that the pair make a convenient scapegoat and that it is too simplistic to conclude that the club's current malaise stems from their off-field issues and high levels of debt that Benitez has made clear he is trying to ease. The Liverpool legend is also hopeful that additional finance will be freed up to allow the Spaniard to reinforce his squad when the transfer window opens.

"Of course there is [bad feeling towards Hicks and Gillett]," Rush said. "But if you put money into the club you have to know what is going on. The talk is that they may get money in January for Rafa Benitez.

"There are a lot of anti-feelings but I am one of those people who says 'give them a chance, none of us know the full story about the club'. I think it is hard for me to comment if I don't know the full facts. It is easy to blame the owners but they have put a lot of money in already and they may put more money in so give the owners a chance to see what they can or can't do.

"If they can do it, then fair enough. If they can't then maybe someone else is prepared to take over the club. From what I've read, the owners' interest seems to be with Liverpool Football Club. They haven't really had the desire to get out and from what I have read they appear prepared to back Liverpool Football Club."

If Benitez is undergoing a real test of his credentials and the American owners remain unpopular amongst the support, then at least one man continues to offer hope. In Fernando Torres, Rush feels Liverpool have a world-class player who must be kept at all costs. Indeed, he expects that the Spain international will remain at the club even if Champions League football is not forthcoming for next season.

"He is a fantastic player," Rush said of the striker who has scored 11 goals in 13 Premier League games despite Liverpool's struggles this season. "He is one of the best strikers in the world and the way he adjusted to the English game was fantastic. He is one of a few players that if he becomes available, every top club in the world would want him.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if teams were in for him in January, but he does have genuine affection for the supporters because he knows the supporters love him. Him and Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher - the fans love them because of the effort they put in and the skill they have.

"I think that if they didn't finish in the top four, the likes of Torres and Gerrard would still be at Liverpool because they have a feel for the club. I think they will think 'let's give it one more go here. I owe it to the fans to give it one more go to get back into the Champions League'. I think those two would stay. But the temptation that will be offered to both of them, if clubs offer ridiculous amounts of money, that is a temptation for the owners as well. What do they do then?"

Another expensive foreign import with a big reputation is Alberto Aquilani who swapped Roma for Liverpool for £20 million over the summer. But so far the Italian has been something of an enigma having failed to start a single game after arriving injured and then struggling with his fitness.

His reluctance to use Aquilani has been a favourite stick with which the media have beaten Benitez, but Rush feels the manager has to be trusted to deploy the midfielder when he sees fit. And even if Liverpool are lacking creativity in the centre of midfield following the departure of Xabi Alonso last summer, Rush is urging caution over rushing Aquilani into action.

"I don't think any of us know if he is fit," Rush said. "I think he had a calf injury against Portsmouth but if he is there, you have got to play him and we haven't seen enough of him to judge. For £20 million you expect him to be a good player. He looks like a creative player so I think we are looking for people like that to come in and adjust to the English game and gel with the likes of Torres and Gerrard.

"You have got to rely on the manager and in a way the manager is trying to protect him. He doesn't want him to be out for another two months. The manager is trying to protect him and Benitez has been very good because there has been a lot of pressure to play him.

"The media don't know if he is 100% fit. If he had been then I am sure that Benitez would have been looking to play him more often, so you have to rely on the manager on that to say: 'I want him back 100% fit so he can show what he has done in Italy'."

Aquilani or no Aquilani, Liverpool are still facing up to the very real fear that they will fail to qualify for the Champions League this season, but who is to blame? A failing manager beset by the media and unable to coax the best out of his team? Owners who have saddled the club with debt and angered the fans? Players who have underperformed?

Liverpool's problems are myriad but Rush feels the solution is simple: belief must return to the side, and quick.

"I think it is confidence. You cannot become a bad team overnight. It is only a couple of months ago that we completely outplayed Manchester United. They won 2-0 but it could have been more. It is just the confidence and belief. They have to start believing.

"I think with the pressure of being at Liverpool, it is not always physical strength that is needed but mental. It is easy when you are winning but when you are not winning is when you find out the true player who is prepared to roll up his sleeves and fight. Sometimes it doesn't go for you, but you need to be mentally strong enough to overcome that and concentrate on trying that little bit harder and you will overcome it and you will turn it round."

Catch Birmingham v Chelsea at 1230 GMT on Boxing Day followed by Liverpool v Wolves live at 1730 GMT, only on ESPN and ESPN HD. Tune in on Dec 27 for a day of vintage Premier League action on ESPN Classic. To subscribe call 08 442 577 442 or visit www.espn.co.uk

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