Clock is ticking for Benitez
Tom Hicks Jr offended Liverpool's fans with an obscene e-mail - but the public insult delivered by manager Rafael Benitez's team as they deservedly departed the FA Cup against Reading may have deeper and more significant consequences at Anfield.
If Liverpool have become more adept at anything in this desperate season, it is in their uncanny ability to discover new depths to plumb. And the manner of their exit against Reading, whose measure of success this season will be Championship survival, represented a new low.
Liverpool are out of the Champions League, off the pace in the Premier League, out of the Carling Cup and now deprived of their last hope of domestic honours. Benitez still has his "guarantee" of a top four finish to fall back on - but he must now hope he is still around to fulfil his promise.
He has received emphatic backing from Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow and there is not a single reason to doubt those words, but if there is not grave concern inside Anfield at the dramatic decline under Benitez this season, then there should be.
The regime of Tom Hicks and George Gillett has often been used a convenient shield to hide the shortcomings of Benitez's reign, and the depature of Hicks the younger after his foul-mouthed missive should have been the only negative news around Anfield this week.
Sadly for Benitez, Liverpool contrived to dig an even deeper hole than Hicks Jr at icy Anfield and there was no hiding place for the manager this time.
Benitez has undoubtedly been the victim of football's fine margins this season. The concession of late goals has cursed Liverpool, especially in the Champions League against Lyon.
And so it proved again at Anfield as Yossi Benayoun's lunge at Shane Long deep into stoppage time conceded a penalty and provided the catalyst for an extra-time loss that leaves Benitez battling to prove he is worthy of staying at Liverpool for the long haul.
Liverpool's supporters have shown remarkable patience with Benitez - perhaps too much - but even that is tested to breaking point when a side that started the season with aspirations of winning the Premier League (yes, I know I tipped them) is outplayed and outmanouevred by opponents at the wrong end of the Championship.
Benitez hinted at some unseen forces, presumably the display of referee Phil Dowd, in his post-match inquest when he claimed he saw "lots of things he didn't like."
There was certainly plenty to dislike about Liverpool's performance and Benitez deludes only himself if he feels bad luck alone was at the heart of this devastating defeat - the Anfield malaise owes little to ill-fortune.
Liverpool may have lost Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard prematurely to injury, but they were average long before they went and while Reading left it late to equalise, no-one can begrudge them their win.
The real story, unfortunately for Reading, is Liverpool's exit from another competition and the increasingly fragile position of a manager who now appears to be struggling for new ways to inspire his players.
I have witnessed Liverpool regularly in this campaign, and they are unrecognisable from the side that handed out thrashings on a regular basis at the back end of last season - with the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa on the receiving end.
The theory this has been solely caused by the departure of Xabi Alonso is one I refuse to buy into. The fault lines run deeper than that. The departure of a single player should not have such debilitating consequences, and certainly not in Alonso's case.
Liverpool have not looked right from day one and their Premier League defeat at Spurs - and the huge worry for Benitez is that he looks, on present evidence, powerless to stop the slide.
Stripped of Torres and Gerrard, Liverpool had little or nothing to hurt Reading. Alberto Aquilani, finally getting regular action since his £20m summer signing, flattered to deceive while the dreadful performance of Emiliano Insua at left-back will have reduced Anfield defenders of old to tears.
Mediocrity was strewn over all parts of Anfield and it was only Reading's own wastefulness in front of goal that threatened their safe passage into the FA Cup fourth round at the expense of their alleged superiors from the Premier League.
And this is the problem for Benitez. Take away Torres and Gerrard and sadly he appears to be left with a team, and a tenure, on the wane. I was as fooled as anyone by Liverpool's stunning form of the last three months of last season - it seems a lifetime away now.
Liverpool are notoriously reluctant to consider regime change, and Benitez has the cushion of a lucrative five-year contract signed last March, plus the public support of his paymasters and the absence of any obvious and immediate alternative.
Results dictate all, however, and the blunt truth is that if Liverpool continue to disappear down the black hole that has consumed them this season, the club's board may face the difficult task of deciding whether it is more expensive in a wider context to keep Benitez than it would be to dispense with his services.
It is a nonsense to suggest he is not under pressure and another defeat against lower league opponents in the FA Cup only turns it up another notch. Benitez still has the Europa League, but this tournament barely registered on Liverpool's radar when they had the Champions League to play for and he might face a tough task talking it up now.
And there are ominous visible signs of a managerial reign that has peaked, that has reached stagnation point. Liverpool's season is acquiring the stale feeling of Gerard Houllier's final days at Anfield, when there was the unmistakeable scent of permanent decline in the air.
Liverpool look lacklustre, almost bored at times. The drive, the urgency, the inspiration has disappeared and too many players are simply not good enough to change the mood. Even Gerrard, the great talisman, carries the appearance of man being dragged down by the lack of quality around him.
Benitez talks constantly of hard work and seeking improvements, but all his endeavours seem to be falling on deaf ears as Liverpool lurch from one crisis to another.
Anfield's ire has usually been reserved for their unpopular American owners, but eventually the finger of responsibility must point in the direction of Benitez. He has had money to spend, not as much as he would like of course, but the level of his current squad suggests much of it has been spent unwisely.
Hicks and Gillett can be blamed for some of what is wrong at Liverpool, but not all of it and after the Reading defeat the focus must switch to the management.
Benitez must demonstrate he can freshen up a Liverpool side that looks jaded and devoid of all confidence or face the consequences. He has enjoyed crucial wins recently, most notably at Aston Villa, but talk of corners turned and new beginnings to the season struck a hollow chord some time ago. False dawns are now an Anfield speciality.
He faces crucial weeks and months to show he can somehow fashion a future where Liverpool can not only mount a meaningful challenge to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, but also Aston Villa, Manchester City and Tottenham.
Benitez is the great brinksman, almost revelling in the aggravation of crisis management before pulling out the big result when he needs it most. He is now battling to save himself like never before.