On his mobile phone Rafa Benitez has a photograph sent to him by Liverpool supporters after his Newcastle team beat Manchester City at the end of January.
Written in large letters in the snow on a Merseyside road are two words: ‘Ta Rafa.’
A reminder, then, that Benitez — manager of Liverpool between 2004 and 2010 — has already done his old club one big favour this season and it goes without saying that when Jurgen Klopp and his team face Newcastle at St James’ Park on Saturday night there will not be room for another.
Rafa Benitez can dent Liverpool's title hopesm 10 years after almost leading them to the title
Newcastle, on reasonable form throughout the spring, will all but hand the Premier League title to City if they take points on Saturday night. Victory for Liverpool, who have lost only once, and the season will remain alive until its final day.
‘Whatever happens, Liverpool are one of the best teams in the world,’ said Benitez. ‘We were lucky to stop City at home so we will see what happens against Liverpool. But if they play at their best then it will be difficult for us.’ Benitez will be forever associated with Liverpool because of the Champions League win of 2005. He also still has a home on Merseyside.
But 10 years ago, he was in a similar position to Klopp in the Premier League. Liverpool ran Manchester United mightily close in 2008-09 and the plotline was similar.
Benitez’s team lost only twice in the league that season and finished strongly, winning 10 of their last 11 matches.
But, as City are threatening to be this year, Sir Alex Ferguson’s United just proved too strong. Whatever Liverpool did, United matched. And so a 19-year wait for a league title went on. Currently, it stands at 29 years.
‘Sometimes other teams are just stronger,’ Benitez shrugged.
Liverpool's 2009 charge was led by Fernando Torres while Sadio Mane and Co are now on fire
‘Fair enough. You have to try and do better next year. I know what it means to people in England to win the league and in Liverpool the fans want to see the team winning trophies.
‘Some people will say, “You have to win the league”. But maybe you cannot because the other team is stronger or they have a bigger squad or more money.’
Having lost 3-0 in Barcelona in their Champions League semi-final this week, it is possible — maybe even likely — that Liverpool will win nothing this season. Given that they already have 91 league points, we may have to find a new definition for the word ‘failure’.
Ten years ago, United won the league with 90 points and Liverpool were second with 86. Undoubtedly, Benitez’s squad suffered from a lack of depth.
Led by the exhilarating chemistry between Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, Liverpool could be devastating as they showed in winning 4-1 at Old Trafford. But beneath the glossy top coat, that vintage could be a little scratchy.