Benitez and Scolari face vital test
Liverpool co-owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks land at Anfield on Sunday amid heavy turbulence - even by the rocky standards of the Rafael Benitez regime.
And if they glance behind them in the directors' box they will see, if he is in attendance, another Premier League power broker who has enjoyed happier times, namely Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich.
Meanwhile, just along the M62 on Saturday evening, Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United have it within their power to ensure the trio shift even more uncomfortably in their seats on what could be a pivotal Premier League weekend.
If Ferguson's team beat Everton, it will put them five points clear at the top and conceivably make the encounter at Anfield a must-win for Benitez and his Chelsea counterpart Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Hicks and Gillett are in town to sort out a variety of political and footballing matters that have have provided a permanent backdrop to Anfield events in recent weeks.
They want to sort out Benitez's contract impasse, his future relationship with chief executive Rick Parry, perhaps inquire (as hard-headed businessman) why an asset they paid £20m for in the shape of Robbie Keane lies so idle for so long, and maybe even find some common ground on the future ownership and direction of the club.
After that little lot, taking in a spot of football against Chelsea may come as a blessed relief - but there is no doubt the stakes are getting higher for both clubs.
Benitez was not being complimentary when he bracketed Everton with Extramadura, the
lowly Spanish minnows he once coached, after they produced a superb defensive display to frustrate Liverpool in the FA Cup fourth round at Anfield last Sunday.
So there is no little irony in the fact that Benitez might almost be in the mood to shower bouquets upon Everton manager David Moyes if his team can perform a similar trick at Old Trafford.
The odds are against it. United are not gripped by Liverpool's caution and the smart money will be on Benitez and Scolari being five points off the pace by kick-off time on Sunday.
In those circumstances, would a draw at Anfield even suit Chelsea, let alone Liverpool?
Four points behind United having played a game more would leave the Premier League title race starting to have a faint whiff of inevitability about it.
Victory is essential for both sides. A share of the spoils and Sir Alex will enjoy his traditional glass of red even more on Sunday night.
Benitez and Scolari have been contrasting figures during Manchester United's revival that has taken them back to the Premier League summit.
Liverpool's manager has declared war on all fronts. He has attacked Ferguson, Premier League officials, the fixture list, Everton's tactics and seemingly unknown "crazy" forces in the damaging draw at Wigan.
Scolari, in contrast, has retreated somewhat from the public gaze, pushing forward Ray Wilkins to do his talking with greater regularity as Chelsea regroup following their harrowing defeat at Manchester United.
Both managers have faced searching questions from their own fans, even Benitez, for whom many Liverpool fans have unswerving loyalty.
Benitez, even before his cryptic post-match efforts at the JJB Stadium, did not help his cause during a 90 minutes that underscored many of the doubts harboured about Liverpool and their manager.
The persistence with the limited Lucas in central midfield ahead of Xabi Alonso appears to owe almost as much to stubborness as sound logic. The accident waiting to happen finally came to pass when he needlessly fouled Jason Koumas to give away a late penalty that cost Liverpool victory.
And, to the rare sound of jeers from his own supporters, Benitez then removed captain Steven Gerrard after Mido scored from the spot.
With all due respect to Benitez's undoubtedly superior grasp of football's finer points, I will not live long enough to work out why he thought that a wise decision.
I have watched Liverpool on several occasions recently, and to remove Gerrard would have been to cut out the heart of the team.
The suggestion that Gerrard was tired - too tired to last another potentially vital six minutes? - was, to put it kindly, strange. Gerrard, one suspects, would have found the energy to disagree.
It may also be, however, time to put Liverpool's recent political and footballing troubles in a more generous context.
Benitez has a habit of coming out of such difficulties by engineering a crucial win, such as against Inter Milan in the Champions League last season. He was also being questioned with vigour during his first season at Liverpool, a campaign that ended with a Champions League triumph.
Liverpool, just to add a little weight to Benitez's side of the argument, have lost only once in the league this season, in almost laughable circumstances at Spurs, and are eight points up on their tally this time last term.
Too many draws have been their undoing. Liverpool remain devilishly hard to beat, which is why they have every chance of making their usual progress in Europe.
So all is not lost providing Benitez can go against his most cautious instincts and release some of the shackles on an undoubtedly talented group of individuals.
He will need to do so if Manchester United prove more adept at piercing Everton's iron defence than Liverpool did last Sunday.
If he is too cautious against Chelsea, it could be the catalyst for a fatal blow to Liverpool's hopes of winning the title.
Chelsea's own aspirations were put into sharp focus by an uncharacteristic mauling at Old Trafford. It was a grim sight to witness in the flesh a Chelsea side without the mettle that has carried them so far so successfully in recent seasons.
They could not even count on the most consistent of their forces that day. The defence that has fashioned so many famous victories looked vulnerable, especially down the centre at set-pieces.
Chelsea looked like a team that had grown too old together. They had the appearance of players at the end of great successes rather than at the start of conquering new horizons. Was Scolari himself ill-suited for the unique demands the Premier League places on coaches?
Scolari, however, will be heartened by Chelsea's response and perhaps inspired after being comprehensively outwitted by Benitez when Liverpool finally ended their long unbeaten home record in the league earlie this season.
It has not been spectacular, but they have had four straight victories in the Premier League and the FA Cup.
And doubts about spirit and divisions in the camp may have been swept away by the manner in which they rallied in the closing seconds to beat Stoke City, and the style in which Frank Lampard pointedly celebrated his late winner with Scolari.
It has been solid rather than stylish, but the ship is steady once more and talk of Abramovich losing interest in one of his pet projects has also been swiftly kicked into touch.
A visit to Anfield, however, especially an Anfield harbouring a sense of "them against us", is always a tough assignment and Chelsea's record against teams seen as their closest rivals is unimpressive this season.
Scolari and Benitez will watch events at Old Trafford with keen interest on Saturday night. Everton have remained undefeated in games against United, Chelsea, Liverpool twice and Arsenal as their improvement has continued.
They will hope, with equal fervour, that United's recent golden run will be halted.
If it is not, it may well be a case of fortune favouring the bravest manager at Anfield on Sunday afternoon.