Why Liverpool's Christmas fixtures will define their season and the future of its biggest names

I have received plenty of grief from regular readers about my apparent Liverpool bias and my apparent blind support for Rafa Benitez. In particular, I was ridiculed for the suggestion a few weeks ago that they could still finish as high as second.

My logic was simple (as no doubt people believe me to be): this is a very different season to recent years, a season more akin to the great years of the late 60s and 70s when there was not such a defined gap between the top few clubs and the rest.

Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal would drop more points than before, was my suggestion, leaving the title race far more open than usual, and the points target to be champions considerably less than at any time during the last decade. 

I was right on that part, as results over the past fortnight have proved. However, it is clear that the other part of my assertion - that when Liverpool got their players back they could claw their way into some sort of contention over the Christmas period - was woefully wide of the mark.

They are not in contention, and at this rate, they will do well to qualify for the Europa League, never mind the Champions League. 

Yet, M'Lud, I'd like one factor to be taken into account in my defence. Liverpool were cruising at half-time against Arsenal just over a week ago, should have been three up and should have comfortably seen out the game. Had they done that, then they would be on the fringes of the title race now.

Yeah, I know, if, but, maybe. Yet the fact remains that it wasn't such a wild prediction, given the way results have turned out. What I couldn't have bargained for back then though, was how poorly Liverpool would play WITH all their big name players back in the side.

Against Arsenal, they were wonderful for 45 minutes, but crucially, Fernando Torres missed a sitter and the referee missed a blatant penalty. Those two moments changed the whole game, and with it, possibly Liverpool's entire season.

They weren't so wonderful against Wigan, and - confidence visibly drained - they were woeful at Portsmouth. They looked like a side that were fighting amongst themselves, a side without direction or a clear vision of where they need to be. And that is a potentially lethal problem.

Unless Rafa Benitez addresses the malaise at the heart of his team swiftly - and by my reckoning, the next three games are now massive - then he will be faced with meltdown at Anfield. That is how important the Christmas period is to Liverpool.

Wolves at home would have been a banker until a fortnight ago, but not any more. Then come the two games that could well define Benitez's future, because defeat against Aston Villa and Spurs would make a top four finish almost impossible, and the consequences unthinkable.

I wrote in this column some weeks ago that I believed Liverpool would turn their season around when all their important players were fit and available, because I KNEW that the other sides would lose enough games to let them back into the top four.

Now, I'm not so sure, largely because of the performances of those important players since they got back. Torres has been anonymous and uninterested, skipper Steven Gerrard has been peripheral, Javier Mascherano irresponsible, and Alberto Aquilani the crock we knew him to be, even before he arrived at Anfield.

The chance was there over the past fortnight for Liverpool to not only get into the top four, but to rejoin the title race. Crazy, I know, but the win that should have been theirs against Arsenal really would have put the Reds right back in contention, such is the bizarre nature of this season.

They've blown that now, and instead they face a massive three games - or make that four with a tricky FA Cup visit to Reading - which will decide whether they can finish in the top four, and with it the future of many of the key protagonists at Anfield.

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