Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Benitez To 'Restructure' LiverpooL After The Athens Finale

Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, will sanction a mass exodus from his squad this summer irrespective of whether they return from Athens with the club's sixth European Cup.

Benitez has overwhelmed the club's American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the need to leverage on Liverpool's second appearance in the showpiece event in three seasons as he seeks to rival Manchester United and Chelsea consistently in the Premiership, but the fundamental changes will not be restricted to extensive or expensive in-comings.

At least seven members of the Liverpool squad grooming for Wednesday night's final with Milan are likely to be delegated under Benitez's long-term plans for Anfield and the figure may well rise if Xabi Alonso finds himself on the substitutes' bench at the Olympic Stadium.

Contract negotiations are not progressing as flawlessly with the Spanish international as with Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Steve Finnan, who have all agreed new deals that will be signed upon their return to Merseyside, and the £10.7m capture from Real Sociedad will be hesitant to commit his future to Liverpool if he is omitted against the Rossoneri.

While Benitez has little craving to lose Alonso at this stage, he is prepared to allow Craig Bellamy, Sami Hyypia, Bolo Zenden, Harry Kewell and Mark Gonzalez to leave following the European Cup Final, while Robbie Fowler and Jerzy Dudek have already been informed their contracts will not be renewed. Several players sent on loan this season, among them goalkeeper Scott Carson, are also available to offers.

Australian Kewell is in contention for a surprise role against Milan, as in Istanbul in 2005, having missed all but the final week of the Premiership season through injury. His fitness record has been ill-fated at Anfield and, as one of the high earners at the club, Liverpool will be open to enquiries.

Bellamy is a target for Aston Villa, plus his former club Blackburn Rovers after one season at Anfield; Hyypia has lost his first-team place to Daniel Agger after exceptional service to the club; Zenden is out of contract and also a key injury doubt for tomorrow; while Chilean international Gonzalez has not vindicated Liverpool's extensive pursuit and has received offers to return to Spain.

"I know we can improve, and we will do that by bringing in new players with character, quality and experience," said Benitez, who arrived with his squad in Athens on Monday afternoon. "I am happy with my players, and I think we are going in the correct direction, but this final is just a stopping point on the way. Winning a European Cup is a great thing, we want to be a strong side and win trophies along the way, but the objective is not to simply win this trophy. It is to get stronger and to challenge in the Premier League next season."

Liverpool have agreed deals this summer for Lucas Leiva, a £6m midfielder from Brazilian club Gremio, Argentine left winger Sebastian Leto and the Bayer Leverkusen striker Andre Voronin, but more lauded names are anticipated at Anfield as Benitez spends a £40m transfer budget that could be swelled by sales and revenue from this season's Champions League.

A proven goalscorer is the main concern, with Samuel Eto'o, Fernando Torres and Carlos Tevez under serious consideration, while former targets such as Real Zaragoza centre-half Gabriel Milito and Seville's Daniel Alves are now within the budget allocated by the Americans.

"We will make changes," the club's co-chairman, Tom Hicks, confirmed on Monday. "I think Rafa will be a very busy man after Wednesday. The Istanbul victory was so important for the long-term heritage of the club, and if we can win a second so soon that really establishes us and makes Rafa's job easier to add some players. We've already started that process and next year we want to challenge for both the Premiership and Champions League. Actually, we want to challenge for all four competitions.

"I know what Rafa tells me and I make judgements on his judgements. He has told me the types of development he feels we need to compete week in and week out. That's the challenge. In the Premiership, you need profundity of players and motivated players."

Benitez added: "It is important not to think that, by getting to the final, we have done everything because we have the potential to be one of the biggest clubs in Europe. And by making our second Champions League final in two years, we have shown what can be accomplished.

"Now we hope to achieve even more. It will be a significant summer. The American owners have now been at the club for a few months and can see what's possible here. Every time I have spoken to them it has been positive and we will be talking again after the final."