Rafa hits dead end
THE extent of the fractures in the relationship between Rafael Benitez and the Liverpool hierarchy was revealed yesterday by reports that the manager has twice cancelled meetings with Martin Broughton, the club's new chairman.
Benitez, who had previously claimed that he has been left waiting for talks with Broughton, maintains that on both occasions the timing of the proposed meetings was impractical. The Spaniard is seeking assurances over transfer funding and his future at Anfield, having been given until Monday to accept the offer of a four-year, £16m contract offer from Juventus.
Despite the insistence of Benitez's agent, Manuel Garcia Quilon, that his client intends to continue as Liverpool manager and that no agreement with Juventus is in place, it is looking increasingly likely, unless there is a sudden and unexpected improvement in relations between Benitez and his employers, that the Premier League match away to Hull City on Sunday will be the last of his six-year tenure.
Roy Hodgson, the Fulham manager, and Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, would figure prominently on a shortlist to replace Benitez and it is understood that Hodgson would be receptive to an approach.
Benitez is set to meet Broughton this week, but he is unlikely to receive any assurances from the chairman, first because Broughton's position is non-executive and does not allow him to become involved in the day-to-day running of the club and second because Liverpool's finances are not robust enough to make such commitments.
"He has a meeting with the chairman this week, and from what I can say Rafael Benitez wants to continue at Liverpool," Quilon said. "Benitez needs to know what the plans are for the future, for the investment into players at the club.
"I have not made any agreement with Juventus. He has four years left of his contract (with Liverpool). If there is going to be any change, that is something you had better ask him directly."
The longer the present impasse drags on, the more difficult it will be for Benitez, Liverpool and Juventus to plan ahead. There are also fears at Anfield that the uncertainty will fuel the insecurities of players who are considering their own futures, notably Fernando Torres, who is the subject of confirmed interest from Manchester City and a reported bid from Chelsea.
Juventus have attempted to force the issue by setting a deadline for Benitez to accept their offer. Gianluigi Buffon, the Juventus goalkeeper, has even admitted publicly that he would be happy to see Benitez take charge of the club.
"Benitez's CV is really good," Buffon said. "Tactically he's a good manager and he's shown he can deal with problems off the pitch. Benitez is a great professional that every team would like to have."
Juventus's pursuit of Benitez has been relentless, but it will not go on indefinitely should the 50-year-old continue to prevaricate. Beppe Marotta, the newly appointed sporting director of the Serie A club, has made it clear that he will pursue an Italian should Benitez not reach an agreement with them in the coming days, with Cesare Prandelli, the Fiorentina coach, his favoured alternative.
Torres is a doubt for Spain's opening World Cup game against Switzerland as he continues his recovery from knee surgery.