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Sunday, October 26, 2008


Top players will quit if manager is forced out

ONE OUT, ALL OUT - Martin Skrtel, Javier Mascherano, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt and Albert Riera are all likely to quit Anfield if Rafa Benitez goes

RAFA BENITEZ will have three millions reasons to cast an envious glance across the ten yards of no-man's land at Stamford Bridge this afternoon.
Sitting there will be Luiz Felipe Scolari, a coach with two months of Premier League experience but who earns almost double Rafa's wage.

But the rumblings generated by the Benitez contract situation are not just about a rich man wanting to get richer.

They are threatening the stability of a team that finally looks capable of mounting a serious title challenge.

Sport of the World understands that unless the Spaniard's long-term future is secured soon, Liverpool run the risk of losing up to SIX of their frontline stars - including the irreplaceable Fernando Torres.

An Anfield insider told us: "The manager wants to stay for a long, long time and has made that clear. But there has been no movement on a new contract despite one of the owners saying it was a priority earlier this year.

"That has set the alarm bells ringing with Rafa. At this stage of his career, he wants to plan for the future. There has already been massive interest in him from Spain and Italy.

"But the crucial thing for Liverpool is that around half a dozen players see their future as being tied in with Rafa's. There would be a rebellion if Benitez had to leave."

Leading that rebellion would be fellow Spaniards Torres and Pepe Reina - backed up by Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano, Martin Skrtel and new boy Albert Riera.

With progress in the Champions League relatively smooth and the Premier League top spot beckoning if they can upset Chelsea today, another conflict behind the scenes is the last thing Liverpool need.

But that is what they are heading for.

Benitez insists that his desire for an extended deal is borne out of a need to lay plans that will see the team flourish well into the next decade.

But his freefall down the manager's pay table cannot have escaped his attention.

As Liverpool cement their place amongst the Big Four, Benitez is now treading water in the financial mid-division alongside the likes of David Moyes, Harry Redknapp, Mark Hughes and Roy Keane.

Even Kevin Keegan - before his stomp away from St James Park - was collecting more than the man who has a Champions League success on his considerable CV.

Benitez earns a flat-rate of £3.5million a year. Hardly on the breadline but at least three million below Scolari's annual remuneration.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger both boast a seven-figure advantage over their rival while Hughes, Keane and Redknapp are in the same ballpark.

And across Stanley Park, Moyes has just put his signature to a £65,000-a-week package that leaves him only a round of drinks below his Merseyside foe.

Benitez can fatten his wage packet by winning trophies - £1million for Champions League glory, £750,000 if he can end Liverpool's 19-year wait for domestic bragging rights.

But he has now fallen out of the elite bracket ... in economic terms.

I understand Benitez has already snubbed the chance to join any one of three Spanish clubs and three Italian clubs.

One of the La Liga suitors were Real Madrid, whose current manager Bernd Schuster has not yet been offered an extension to a contract that expires next summer.

Juventus are believed to be leading the Serie A interest.

And having seen his old enemy Jose Mourinho secure a staggering £7million-a-year agreement with Inter, Benitez will be well aware of the earning opportunities in Italy.

Which is why the hesitancy of the Anfield board to offer him a revised contract has mystified many at the club.

Chief executive Rick Parry - a close ally of co-owner George Gillett - has brushed aside questions on the subject.

But Tom Hicks, who called for Parry to quit towards the end of last season, said several months ago that the long-term future of Benitez should be tied up as a matter of urgency.

With Parry and Gillet still in position, that seems to be easier said than done.

And with the credit crunch squeezing the American owners - the new stadium on hold and looking an increasingly endangered venture - there is increasing pressure on Liverpool's finances.


There were claims last week that the profits from Liverpool's on-pitch success were all being used to pay off interest on the huge loans taken out by Gillett and Hicks.

The club may even be forced to have a freeze on signing players in the next couple of transfer windows.

But the ramifications of stalling over the Benitez deal are serious.

Benitez has developed strong relationships with key players and his departure would prompt a mutiny.

Among those who would question their own futures at the club would be key senior players such as Reina, Kuyt and Mascherano.

But most signinficant of all would be Torres who is positioning himself alongside the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the most sought-after player in world football.

Torres has over four years to run on his contract so there appears to be no need for urgency in getting him to the negotiating table.

But he wants those four years to be under his countryman and any hint of that arrangement being unsettled and the 23-year-old's head might well be turned by the interest that is bound to erupt in next summer's transfer window.

And every big club knows how difficult it is to keep an unhappy player.

Liverpool, of course, could play a game of brinksmanship with Benitez.

His contract does not expire until June 2010 and, with money ultra-tight, the likes of Parry and Gillett might be loathe to almost double his deal more than 18 months before the current one expires.

But that would have the Spanish and Italian vultures circling ... and Benitez would not be their only big-name target.