Benitez fights for Liverpool future

(AFP) - Rafa Benitez has enjoyed hero status among Liverpool fans for much of his reign but he looked distinctly mortal as he trudged across Kenilworth Road's sodden turf.

Benitez, brow furrowed and hands thrust deep into his pockets, cut a dejected figure and understandably so after a day he will want to forget in a hurry.

The Liverpool manager had just seen his side held to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup third round after being outplayed and outfought for long periods by cash-strapped League One Luton.

Hours earlier he had woken to headlines calling time on his Anfield reign. He responded to reports that he will be forced out by American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks at the end of the season by pledging his future to Liverpool.

"It's very clear. I love the club, I love the fans, I want to stay," he said.

"I have two more years on my contract and if I can stay for more will be really happy.

"I think the people who own the club want the same but do I need to ask them that question every day? We are working together trying to improve the squad now and for the future."

But whether the Spaniard has any choice will depend on his ability to banish the lethargy currently enveloping Liverpool who are 12 points behind Arsenal in the Premier League title chase and face a tough Champions League clash against Inter Milan next month.

With Steven Gerrard injured and Fernando Torres rested they once again looked short of conviction in the final third and only a Luton error gave Peter Crouch his 74th minute goal.

Even then they couldn't hold on. The sense of a season drifting towards anti-climax was stronger than ever after John Arne Riise's own goal gave Luton a well-deserved replay at Anfield on January 16.

Benitez admitted his side had been below their best and said:

"We worked hard but when you score a goal you have to use your experience. We conceded in three minutes and that was really disappointing."

A money-spinning trip to Anfield was the least Kevin Blackwell's team deserved for an heroic display and it can't come soon enough for a club in administration and teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

The players have only received two weeks wages in the last two months and the majority could be sold if Monday's deadline for new investors to come forward passes without a positive resolution.

Blackwell said: "My team went out and did a job and made Liverpool look poor. We edged them in the chances and with a bit more guile we would have won the game quite comfortably.

"I am hopeful that it now makes us a much more attractive proposition and people move in quicker. I don't want to lose a side I am starting to build here."

Liverpool broke the deadlock when Andriy Voronin seized on a moment's hesitancy by Chris Perry and, although Luton goalkeeper Dean Brill blocked the Ukrainian's shot, Crouch was perfectly placed to tap the rebound into the empty net.

Luton could have crumbled but they rose to the challenge and levelled three minutes later.

Drew Talbot whipped in a cross that flashed across goal towards Dave Edwards. Riise got there first but succeeded only in diverting the ball in to spark wild celebrations.

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