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Benitez under spotlight after Champions League exit

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Phil McNulty | 01:01 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Liverpool supporters have grown up on the tales of great European nights at Anfield - the Champions League visit of Fiorentina next month will not provide any.

The supreme insignificance of the game, simply a fulfilment of Liverpool's fixtures after their exit from the group stage on Tuesday, will be a painful embarrassment to manager Rafael Benitez and his team.

Liverpool's place at European football's top table has been taken as read given they habitually reached the later stages of the Champions League.

Now a meaningless meeting with already-qualified Fiorentina will amount to little more than a warm-up for the fight for scraps in the Europa League, a competition that has barely registered on Liverpool's consciouness, a tournament they were happy to leave to the likes of neighbours Everton and Fulham.

The miracle Liverpool hoped would save their Champions League campaign did not materialise as Fiorentina beat Lyon in Florence. And the pressure mounts on Benitez to salvage something from the mounting wreckage of his season, despite victory against Debrecen in Hungary.

Harry Houdini was born in Budapest and Benitez has become something of an escapologist himself when it comes to getting out of Champions League corners. But not this time - and Liverpool perished in a group that was a difficult but hardly insurmountable obstacle.

This is not just a financially damaging development, although a good run in the Europa League may provide some fiscal compensation. It is a huge blow to the profile and pride of a club that lives off the glamour that Europe's elite competition provides.

The Champions League is big box office. The Europa League, for all Uefa's frantic window dressing, is a very poor second.

Benitez ponders Liverpool's Champions League exit as Steven Gerrard heads to the dressing roomBenitez ponders Liverpool's Champions League exit as Steven Gerrard heads to the dressing room

Liverpool fulfilled their part of the bargain by beating Debrecen in Budapest. But relying on others to do your bidding is always a flawed policy in football and today they are exactly where they deserve to be - out of the Champions League.

Christian Purslow, Liverpool's managing director, once more stated his faith in Benitez and there is no imminent threat to the Spaniard's job. But to suggest he is not under intense scrutiny is to ignore the reality of the club's current plight.

Liverpool stand 13 points away from leaders Chelsea in the Premier League, making a mockery of those of us who felt this would be a winning title season, and out of the Champions League before their final group game is even played.

If those two things alone do not amount to a Liverpool manager being under pressure to deliver, then it is tough to see what does. Benitez must, at the very least, finish in the top four this season otherwise pressure will be applied from a variety of sources, not least the club's loyal and uniquely patient support base.

Liverpool's fate was not sealed by Fiorentina's win on Tuesday night. They were sunk by the concession of two late goals against Lyon - one at Anfield that robbed them of a draw and one in France that denied them a win - and a shocker of a performance away to Fiorentina.

Benitez has not enjoyed luck with injuries, with Fernando Torres struggling for weeks and Steven Gerrard only lasting 25 minutes of what amounted to a defining home game against Lyon.

But Benitez himself has not managed the campaign well, a surprise given the credit he has rightly received for plotting previous Champions League successes.

He used Fabio Aurelio in an unaccustomed central midfield role in Florence, with predictable results, then drew his first sustained jeering from The Kop when he replaced Liverpool's best player, Yossi Benayoun, with Andriy Voronin when they were locked at 1-1 with Lyon at Anfield.

And then we come to Alberto Aquilani. The wisdom of spending £20m on your showpiece summer signing, the player who was going to fill a Xabi Alonso-sized hole in Liverpool's team, and then reach mid-November without him making a first-team start has to be questioned.

If Aquilani was meant to be the cavalry, and he did get a couple of minutes against Debrecen, then he is arriving way too late. This is not, I should stress, the fault of Aquilani, but Benitez took a gamble on when he would be ready and Liverpool are now effectively out of their two main competitions without the Italian making a contribution worthy of the name.

I was at Arsenal on Tuesday, and once their hugely impressive qualification had been assured, the biggest story in Europe was developing in far-off Florence and Budapest. There was no disguising the delight of Arsenal's fans at the demise of a potentially dangerous Champions League foe.

Gunners manager Arsene Wenger was even drawn on the matter in his own post-match briefing, taking no personal pleasure in Liverpool's exit, simply stating that once you lose a home game in the group stage you are struggling.

As Liverpool's players, in a sombre scene, gathered around a television set in the tunnel at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium, hoping for late salvation from Florence, Benitez was already preparing an upbeat message, saying: "I am 100% confident we will finish in the top four in the Premier League this season."

Liverpool fans sing their support during the game in HungaryLiverpool fans sing their support during the game in Hungary

This statement alone is an indicator of the scale of Liverpool's disappointment this season. And for Benitez, fourth place is the absolute minimum requirement this season - anything less and questions about his tenure will be asked, and rightly so.

Benitez and Liverpool must address their Premier League failings while talking up the merits of the Europa League, something which they had hardly factored into their plans and something they are likely to do through gritted teeth as the lucrative Champions League show moves on to another town.

Liverpool and Benitez start the renewal of their season with the small matter of a Merseyside derby at Goodison Park on Sunday - with Everton's fans no doubt only too keen to welcome their neighbours into the Europa League fold.

Of course, brickbats will be aimed in the direction of Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett for the instability that has continued behind the scenes at Anfield with takeover and investment talk - they always are when things go bad - but Benitez cannot simply hide behind their failings.

For all the flak aimed at the American duo, Benitez cannot claim he has been totally starved of cash, and Liverpool's squad outside a first-choice eleven soon dwindles alarmingly in quality.

When I tipped Liverpool for the title, it was based on the last three months of last season and on performances such as the blistering 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid at Anfield in March - a night that must have seemed like years ago to Benitez and his players as they flew home from Hungary.

Of course, so much depended on Gerrard and Torres, and Benitez has been unfortunate to have his world-class stars injured again, but the weaknesses around the edges of his squad have been brutally exposed, underlining the over-reliance on those two wonderful talents.

Too many on the margins are simply not good enough to flourish in the heat of the Premier League and Champions League. Benitez must address this swiftly because it is a weakness that drives at the heart of any plans he might have to seriously revitalise Liverpool.

Torres and Gerrard will remain the jewels in Liverpool's crown, but how will they adapt to the Europa League? With their usual professionalism, of course, but make no mistake they will feel like they have only got their faces pressed up against the window while the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal sweep up all the real goodies.

For Benitez, defining weeks lie ahead. He has, in large portion, retained the unwavering faith of so many Liverpool fans, but painful nights like Tuesday tend to crystallise minds and focus criticisms.

I know from writing about Benitez that any criticism can provoke an angry response from many - but it cannot be avoided after the manner of their Champions League exit. This is no invented setback.

Even when previous Premier League campaigns have faltered, Benitez has always had Europe as his safety net, with memories of Istanbul 2005 to add to his lustre. He cannot live on that forever, and the traumas of this turbulent season will surely have damaged his standing in the eyes of at least some of the fans who previously accepted his wisdom without question.

Benitez must lift the morale of the club and of Liverpool's players, who will have been hit hard by elimination from the Champions League, a tournament that has brought them such emotional highs and lows in recent years.

And Benitez must do it swiftly or it will be a long, hard winter for Liverpool's players and fans - and most of all for Liverpool's manager.

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