STOKE-ON-TRENT, January 15 – Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher has told the club's under-performing players that it is time to stand up and be counted as the pressure mounts on manager Rafael Benitez.
With little chance of winning the Premier League title and having already been eliminated from the Champions League, Liverpool’s season hit rock bottom on Wednesday when they were knocked out of the FA Cup by struggling Championship side Reading at Anfield.
The 49-year-old Benitez remains popular among fans who will always treasure memories of Liverpool’s stirring comeback to beat AC Milan in the 2005 Champions League final.
But increasingly he looks like a man living on borrowed time and it seems reasonable to assume that some of the boos which rang out around Anfield at the end of extra-time against Reading were targeted at the manager.
It is not only the supporters who are rebelling. Ronnie Whelan, who won six titles and one European Cup during a 15-year playing career at Anfield, has called for Benitez to be replaced and he is likely to find more support for his view if an injury-hit Liverpool squad fail to beat Stoke here on Saturday.
Carragher, one of the club’s longest-serving players, insists the players have to take responsibility for a disappointing season that started with so much optimism after the club finished last season as runners-up to Manchester United.
Liverpool are currently seventh in the table, five points adrift of a top four spot that would secure Champions League qualification.
"We have got to do better and we have got to recover," said Carragher. "There are still four months left of the season; it’s been tough and the Reading result has made it a little bit tougher for us. But we are Liverpool.
"We can’t be where we are and we have got to improve. Liverpool Football Club demands certain standards.
"At the moment we are not reaching them and we know that but we have all got to come as one and stick together.
"It was a very bad night for Liverpool (against Reading) and we can’t disguise that – we had to do more against a side from a lower league. We have to apologise for the way we performed."
Carragher added: "We’ve got a massive game coming up against Stoke on Saturday. It will be very tough, as we played extra time and we have got to show enormous character to come back.
"But that’s what we have got to do. We have got to move on but, at the same time, we have to say sorry to the fans who came to Anfield and all those watching on TV."
Benitez is reeling from the news that he will be without leading scorer Fernando Torres for up to nine games and captain Steven Gerrard for two weeks.
In addition, Israel midfielder Yossi Benayoun is unlikely to be available for the next six matches because of a fractured rib.
Torres tore a cartilage in his right knee in midweek and is set to miss the next seven league games along with both legs against Romanian side Unirea in the Europa League next month.
Gerrard also limped off against Reading, a scan revealing on Thursday that the England ace had suffered a hamstring strain.
Given the circumstances, Benitez will not relish the trip to Stoke, who are hoping they will have completed the loan signing of former Liverpool keeper David James from Portsmouth in time for Saturday’s lunchtime encounter.
Stoke manager Tony Pulis believes James can provide significant added value to his squad as he seeks to ensure he is England’s number one for the World Cup in South Africa.
"The big thing for me is that he has got a lot to prove because he wants to be on that plane to the World Cup in South Africa in the summer," Pulis said. "If we can bring him here, he would be a fantastic signing."