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Liverpool v Manchester United: Rafa Benítez fighting off the circling vultures at Anfield

 Liverpool look back to halt the record run of poor form Jamie Carragher
Showing the way: Jamie Carragher remembers dark days in the past and says now is the time for Liverpool to show character Photo: GETTY IMAGES

The last time Liverpool lost five games in a row, the West was still anxiously monitoring events in Moscow after the recent death of Stalin: 1953 was a bad year for the Reds. If nothing else, Rafael Benítez can console himself knowing that all crises are relative.

Anfield’s latest state of emergency has been brought to a strident pitch by the records that this Liverpool team have been working their way through.

They are the first team to lose four in a row since 1987 and today the arrival of a vengeful Manchester United side promises still greater shame. What cold dread must grip Scousers at the prospect of Gary Neville bearing witness to the making of that history.

Despite the best efforts of Benítez and his players to play it down, this game has taken on an apocalyptic tinge. Thousands of fans, from the Spirit of Shankly protest group, are expected to march on Anfield before the game in protest at the American owners.

Inside the stadium, Benítez’s selection and tactics will be scrutinised by an increasingly sceptical crowd, some of whom jeered the manager in the midweek defeat to Lyon. The vultures are circling.

All of which seems absurd if you rewind back to March. Having just beaten Real Madrid 4-0 in the Champions League, Liverpool went to Old Trafford and humiliated the champions 4-1, with Torres giving the previously impregnable Nemanja Vidic a game that will have him waking up in a cold sweat years after he has retired. It felt like a crucial shift in the balance of power and, sensing his moment, Benítez signed a new five-year contract. Just seven months in and the future is not what it used to be.

Despite some pretty uninspiring transfer business in the summer, there was serious optimism that, having lost just twice in the league last season, Liverpool could end their two-decade wait for the title. Instead, it has been back to the familiar sense of early-season crisis at Anfield.

It’s easy to forget how readily the c-word gets bandied around these parts. As recently as 2003, Gerard Houllier’s side went on their worst run in 49 years, going 11 games without a win. Houllier went on to manage for another season.

The record that Benítez can equal today stems back to the same 1953-54 campaign, when Liverpool finished bottom. It is indeed all relative.

With the exception of their last campaign, Benítez’s Liverpool have made a hash of things before the Christmas decorations have gone up in the High Street.

In Benítez’s first season in charge, 2004-05, Liverpool lost five of their first 11 games, including two in the Champions League. The following season they drew four of their first five league games and then got hammered 4-1 at Anfield by Chelsea.

In 2006-07 they lost four of their first nine league games and when they finally got things right in the league the following season, they contrived to get just one point from three games in the Champions League group stage.

In previous seasons, Liverpool have succeeded in recovering from those poor starts to find success. It is not just the breaking of records that makes this crisis seem more serious, it is that you can’t see them bouncing back from it. In contrast to the other clubs with title ambitions, it only takes one or two injuries to derail this side.

In theory, Benítez’s back-up players are superb. An Ajax-educated second striker with 34 caps for the Dutch national side by the age of 22? An Italian international full-back with nearly 200 Serie A games to his name? A Brazilian central midfielder who made his international debut at just 20?

Bring it on. It’s only when you name those abstract players as Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena and Lucas Leiva that you are fittingly underwhelmed.

Hopes of salvation are being pinned on Alberto Aquilani, the Italian international midfielder entrusted with being the heir to Xabi Alonso. He could well be on the bench this afternoon.

To meet the absurd level of expectation being thrown at him, he’s going to have to arrive at the game by walking across the Mersey.

Jamie Carragher, troubled by his own poor form, is clinging, with apologies to Nietzsche, to the hope that whatever doesn’t kill this team will make it stronger.

“The reason the players and the manager are at Liverpool football club is because we’ve come through those tough times,” Carragher said.

“Throughout your career you don’t have it rosy all the way through, you’ve got to fight to get to the top. We’re here for a reason and one of the reasons is we’re good at our jobs and because we’ve got the fight and the character. This is the time we’ve got to show it.

“We’re not playing well, but it’s a long season and we’ve still got things to go for. I know we’ll be written off but I remember the treble season: we didn’t start that very well. In 2005 we had a terrible season in the League but everyone remembers it for the Champions League and in 2007 – it sounds like every season we started badly! – we started poorly and ended up in the Champions League final.

‘‘It’s at the end of the season when the judgment’s made. It’s like being down at half-time in a game, you’ve got to keep fighting and that’s what we’ll do.”

Carragher knows as well as anyone the consequences of defeat on Sunday. This is a man who has scored two own goals in a game against United at Anfield. He knows what these games mean.

The prospects are far from encouraging, though. The number of players convalescing bodes ill. Benítez has pointed out that Liverpool beat United at Anfield last season without Torres and Gerrard, but that is not strictly true.

While neither players started they were both on the bench and Gerrard had come on as a substitute when Liverpool got their winner.

Liverpool is often stereotyped as a sentimental city and the club as excessively emotional. What is certainly true is that this club has a keen sense of what is symbolically valuable.

Liverpool need someone to come through for them this afternoon. If neither Fernando Torres nor Steven Gerrard can be patched up, the vultures will alight on the Kop roof in anticipation of the kill.

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