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Benitez on the brink - a psychological profile of Liverpool's manager

By Chris Murphy, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez is under huge pressure after a poor run
  • The Spaniard has "guaranteed" Liverpool will qualify for the Champions League
  • Sports psychologist Andy Barton says Benitez's pledge is a grave error
  • Benitez should only be focusing on one match at a time, says Barton
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(CNN) -- Festive cheer can be thin on the ground in the lead up to Christmas with an extra dose of stress heaped upon business managers already grappling with icy financial conditions and potentially bleak New Year prospects.

But if you think your office is a tough place to operate, spare a thought for the Yuletide task of one prominent English Premier League football manager.

Having lost his employers $15 million of income by failing to progress in the European Champions League and with his team laboring domestically -- the supposed title-contenders are currently eighth -- this boss also has to contend with a notoriously voracious media scrutinizing his every move.

To compound his frustration, he must entertain 40,000 fans on a weekly basis and the plans he has meticulously formulated to achieve on-field success have to be handed over to others for execution.

Welcome to the high-pressure world of Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez - one that is, according to one expert, starting to take its toll on the Spaniard.

"You can tell Benitez is under pressure because of his body language and his expressions on the touchline. Even when he's sitting on the bench he often looks exasperated and panicked," Andy Barton, a mental performance consultant at The Sporting Mind clinic, told CNN.

And there seems to be good reason for Benitez's beleaguered appearance after recent media speculation has seen claims abound that the soccer boss only remains in employment because Liverpool's cash-strapped American owners -- George Gillett and Tom Hicks -- can't afford to sack him from a freshly agreed five-year contract.

In a bid to settle nerves, Benitez recently "guaranteed" Liverpool would qualify for Europe next season by finishing fourth but then just days later led his side to a 2-0 defeat to bottom side Portsmouth.

According to Barton, Benitez's pledge was a grave error of judgment.

"No-one should guarantee anything, especially in football, because you can't control what happens," he said. "Benitez can't control what Chelsea or Manchester United do.

No-one should guarantee anything, especially in football. Benitez can't control what Chelsea or Manchester United do.
--Andy Barton

"If you want to be successful you can't afford to look that far ahead, you have to focus on the next game and getting your players to play as well as possible.

"But he takes the focus off the next match by talking about the end of the season, and by guaranteeing a top four finish he puts extra pressure on his players and distracts their focus as well.

"This comment is going to haunt him for the rest of the season and whatever goes wrong it will be brought up again and again."

After the Portsmouth match, a belligerent Benitez laid the blame for Liverpool's defeat squarely on referee Lee Mason, who sent off midfielder Javier Mascherano, sarcastically saying: "The referee was perfect. In everything."

Heaping blame on outside forces is common among football managers but Barton says Benitez's outburst was another sign of a man under pressure.

"Coaches like Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho blame anyone they can for the loss but they do it with conviction and confidence, like they truly believe in what they are saying.

"When Benitez says something like, "The referee was perfect," it looks like he's clutching at straws. It was a very abstract way of doing it."

So, what does Benitez need to do to turn things around at Liverpool and get back on track in 2010? "He needs to forget about the top four, forget about the board and focus on the next match, the best way of beating his opponents and getting his players' confidence up," says Barton.

"It'll be hard to do those things overnight but he must retain confidence in himself and project that on to the team. (Steven) Gerrard and (Fernando) Torres are important but so are the rest of his squad. He bought them for a reason and they are all capable, he needs to remind them of that."

A tricky set of fixtures through Christmas and New Year could decide Benitez's fate, and if his players don't get things right on the pitch, he could be feeling that icy chill well into 2010.