Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rafael Benítez Given 10-day Juventus Ultimatum

Rafael Benítez’s future was thrown into further doubt today after rumours circulated suggesting the Liverpool manager has been given a ten-day ultimatum by Italian giants Juventus, who want the 49-year-old to take over in Turin next season.

A report in The Times today suggests the Serie A club have given the former Valencia boss just ten days in which to respond to their advances, piling the pressure on Benítez who is faced with an uncertain future at Anfield after Tom Hicks and George Gillett opened the floor to potential buyers this week.

Juventus will face tough competition for the Spaniard if they intend on bringing him to Italy this summer, with Benítez rumoured to be top of Real Madrid’s shortlist of potential new managers, above Inter boss Jose Mourinho and England manager Fabio Capello.

Of course, Benítez may chose to stay on at Anfield, especially when you consider the manager has four years left on his Liverpool contract and has secured the long-term deals of key players including Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Pepe Reina.

But should Benítez seal an Anfield departure at the end of the season it will send shock-waves through the rest of European football, especially if the Champions League-winning boss decides to head for the Bernabéu.

A move away from Merseyside would leave the 18-times English League winners searching for a new manager in the midst of one of the biggest ownership crises seen in English football.

With little financial backing and an uncertain future it would no doubt be hard for Liverpool to attract a top manager, leaving question marks over whether Benítez, regardless of this disappointing season, is the best man for the job.

Clearly if he moves to either Juventus or Madrid it will leave the other club without their first choice appointment, with Real’s second choice reportedly being the current Inter manager Jose Mourinho, who is allegedly sick of life in Milan.

So should Benítez decide leave Anfield at the end of this season it will leave at least two clubs searching for a new manager, and it could result in three giants of European football all in the hunt for new coaches this summer.

Inter Milan In Bid To Capture Liverpool Captain Gerrard

According to the Daily Mail, Jose Mourinho will make Steven Gerrard his number one transfer target, hoping to lure the Liverpool skipper to Inter Milan over the summer.

Mourinho is clearly a fan of 29 year-old Gerrard, having attempted to twice tempt him away from Anfield during his time as Chelsea manager. Gerrard has been at home town club Liverpool his entire career, making his debut in 1998 and lifted the Champions League trophy in 2005.

Although Gerrard signed a new contract lasting until 2013 last summer, he has reportedly been unhappy with Liverpool’s probable failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League and the lack of money available to improve the squad.

According to the Daily Mail, Inter believe it could cost between £25million and £30million to sign Gerrard. Mourinho may also include volatile young striker Mario Balotelli as a makeweight in a proposed deal.

Should Rafa Benitez agree to become Juventus coach as is rumoured, it would also likely increase the chances of Gerrard’s Anfield exit.

Rafael Benitez Must Make Decision On Young Striker Krisztian Nemeth's Future - Agent

Rafael Benítez must decide upon the future of young Liverpool striker Krisztian Nemeth or risk losing him this summer, according to the player's agent.

Tibor Pataky told UK that 21-year-old Nemeth - who is currently on loan at Greek side AEK Athens - would be happy to return to Anfield at the end of the season, but hinted at interest from across Europe.

"It is no secret that AEK are happy with the boy," he said, "Of course they are; he is a fantastic talent and an excellent prospect. But if they wish to extend his loan contract then they will need to speak with Liverpool.

"If every party can agree, then it is not impossible that Krisztian can extend his contract to stay in Athens for another season."

"Our treatment from Liverpool from day one has been fantastic, and as a result Krisztian wishes to do what Mr Benitez wants."

"But we have had other serious interest from clubs in Europe - from Italy and from Spain - so it is up to Liverpool to decide what is best for them and for us."

Nemeth has made 13 appearances for AEK this season, scoring three goals, and reports earlier this week suggested that the Greek side were seeking to extend the Hungarian Under-21 star's loan deal by another season.

Pataky admits that such a deal could well take place if all parties are satisfied, but also hinted at further interest from clubs across the continent.

Benitez faces a tough decision on Nemeth, after a season littered with complaints about a lack of striking depth beyond Spanish star Fernando Torres, who has endured an injury-disrupted campaign. Young Frenchman David Ngog has often been left to lead the line alone at Anfield, despite his relative lack of experience.

Serbian forward Milan Jovanovic is expected to join from Standard Liege on a free transfer in the summer, but Nemeth - who boasts a prolific goalscoring record at reserve level for Liverpool, as well as for Hungary's Under 19 and Under 21 sides - would add to Benitez's options.

Pataky says the player has enjoyed his season at Athens, but stressed that Liverpool is the club at which he wishes to succeed.

"Krisztian has enjoyed very much his time in Greece," he revealed, "Of course the weather is another issue - there is much less rain than there is in Liverpool - but Krisztian joined AEK first and foremost for football reasons.

"He is a sensible boy and he understands why he was allowed to leave Liverpool on loan. He went to Athens to pick up experience and to develop as a footballer, and it has been a great opportunity for him, one that he has enjoyed.

"But though AEK are a huge club in Greece, Liverpool are Liverpool."

Olympiacos Set To Sign Fabio Aurelio From Liverpool

Olympiacos have made an offer for Liverpool full-back Fabio Aurelio, according to a report from The Liverpool Echo.

The Brazilian is out of contract at Anfield in the summer, and the Greek giants are looking to snap the 30-year-old up on a free transfer.

Aurelio has made just 10 starts and 13 appearances as a substitute for the Reds this season, and it is unclear whether or not he will be offered a new deal after negotiations were disrupted by his injury problems this season.

The player is currently sidelined with a thigh problem and injured his knee on holiday in Brazil before the season began. Emiliano Insua has established himself at left-back in Aurelio's absence.

Reds manager Rafael Benitez is apparently keen to play Aurelio before the season ends as he is set to return to training next week.

However, it is looking increasingly likely that Aurelio will be plying his trade in the Greek Super League next season.

Sammy Lee: Maxi Rodriguez Is A Class Footballer

Liverpool's assistant manager Sammy Lee has stated his delight with the performances and professionalism of January signing Maxi Rodriguez.

The 29 year-old Argentina international was bought for £1.5 million, from next week's Europa league semi final opponents Atletico Madrid, and has since made 14 appearances for the reds contributing two assists.

"Maxi is a class footballer," 51 year-old Lee said according to The Sun.

"He has come here and settled very quickly. He has been great to have around the place and he is very focused.

"He is a great professional and it is a great pity he is not available for us in the Europa League."

Lee also praised Rodriguez's determination and desire to improve.

"He wants to do well at this club and that's great for us when you have an international footballer who comes here and wants to learn and get better."

Lee was also quick to praise the midfielder's attacking contribution in a season where Liverpool have often struggled to create enough chances.

"One of his best assets is he likes to get the ball forward quickly and get us on the attack. That's the first thing you should always think about when you get the ball — to pass it forward — and he does that"

Glen Johnson: I’m Getting Back To My Best

Liverpool full-back Glen Johnson believes he is getting back to his best form after a season hampered by injury.

The former Portsmouth defender went down with a knee injury at the end of December, a serious problem that kept him out for two months. But since returning to Rafael Benitez's side, the England international believes he is gradually getting back to his best.

"Obviously each game from the injury I am picking up more and more fitness," Johnson told Sky Sports News.

"Obviously when you have been out for so long it is difficult to pick up where you left off because your match fitness has gone out the window and you need games to get that back.

"Every game I feel better and better now."

It has been a difficult season for the Reds, but they still have the chance to end it with Europa League glory. And Johnson believes his team-mate, Fernando Torres, will be back soon to help them achieve that aim.

"Yes it is massive [to be missing Torres], obviously Fernando can score a goal out of nothing and obviously you need to have that sort of option on the field really," he added.

"I think his rehab is going quite well so I think he will be back pretty soon."

Jose Reina: I Want To Emulate Liverpool Legends Bruce Grobbelaar And Ray Clemence

Having recently signed a new six-year contract at Liverpool, Jose Reina has set his sights on joining fellow goalkeepers Ray Clemence and Bruce Grobbelaar as a Kop legend.

The Spaniard has been compared with the two legendary shot-stoppers, who both accumulated over 600 appearances for the Reds in successful careers. And Reina admits it is an honour to be compared with two players he has great respect for.

"It's nice people compare me to those two, who I call 'monsters' in goalkeeping terms as they were both amazing for this club," Reina told the club's official website.

"To be compared with them I have to win a lot more medals with this club as they achieved great success with Liverpool.

Reina currently has 253 appearances for the club under his belt, and with a new six-year contract at the club signed he has set himself the target of reaching his predecessors' enviable playing records.

"They both played triple the amount of games I have so far and I have got a long way to go to make over 600 appearances for this club," he said.

"It's a massive amount but I want to play over 600 games for this club one day and hopefully I can achieve that."

Liverpool has struggled this season, with qualification for next season's Champions League looking increasingly unlikely. Reina has already stated the club's current woes didn't affect his decision to sign a new contract, and he reiterated his belief that success is around the corner.

"I believe in this club and I believe we will achieve some good things for our supporters," he said.

"We have this famous history and we want to grow more success for this club in the future."

Reds ‘Have £50 Million Transfer Budget’ As Hicks And Gillett Prepare To Sell Club

The imminent appointment of Martin Broughton, the chairman of British Airways, as chairman of English soccer club Liverpool FC and an extended deadline from the club's banks, are expected to pave the way for the sale of the Anfield team.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool's American owners, are standing down as co-chairmen of the club, while Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia are believed to have offered Hicks and Gillett a six-month extension on loans of around US$365 million.

'Confirmation of the sale process and the boardroom reshuffle will mark the beginning of the end of the Americans' tenure, though the sale of the club is unlikely to be swift,' reports the Daily Telegraph. 'Prospective buyers are expected to wait to begin negotiations until the end of the season, when Liverpool's participation in Europe and the fate of manager Rafael Benítez, who has again been linked with Juventus, is clearer.'

The newspaper adds that Hicks and Gillett are expected to provide transfer funds if, as expected, a buyer has not been secured by the summer transfer window. The Daily Mirror goes further, claiming that Liverpool's summer transfer budget will be UK£50 million (US$77 million), though it is unknown whether Benitez will be the man spending that money.

Benitez, who has repeatedly called for fresh investment, has reportedly been given ten days by Juventus to decide whether to make the switch to Italy. However, his position at Liverpool is far more secure than would normally be expected of a Liverpool manager whose team may well miss out on Uefa Champions League qualification. As well as having the memory of a Champions League win in 2005 and a second-place finish in the Premier League last season, Benitez would be owed a substantial sum of money under a contract signed last year should he be sacked. With Hicks and Gillett apparently keen to sell Liverpool, reports indicate that they are unwilling to make that payment.

Meanwhile, earlier this week, Gillett's Nascar team reportedly defaulted on a US$90 million loan for technical reasons.

New owners would hope to finally begin the process of moving Liverpool to a new stadium close to their famous home, Anfield, in the city's Stanley Park. The move was a key factor in Hicks and Gillett's takeover, but Liverpool has been unable to secure the necessary financing in the last three years.

Tom Hicks And George Gillett Prepare To Cut Their Losses At Liverpool

Tom Hicks and George Gillett will signal their intention to walk away from Liverpool, having bowed to the twin pressures of financial reality and supporter antipathy that have dogged their three years in charge.

Liverpool are expected to confirm shortly that, as The Daily Telegraph disclosed, Hicks and Gillett are to stand down as co-chairmen at Anfield in favour of Martin Broughton, the chairman of British Airways.

Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia are also preparing to offer a six-month extension on loans of £237 million, paving the way for the sale of the club. That process will be led by Barclays Capital (BarCap), an investment bank Hicks and Gillett have worked with in the past and which, through its retail bank parent company which sponsors the Premier League, has a vested interest in maintaining the health and reputation of one of England's leading clubs.

Confirmation of the sale process and the boardroom reshuffle will mark the beginning of the end of the Americans' tenure, though the sale of the club is unlikely to be swift.

Prospective buyers are expected to wait to begin negotiations until the end of the season, when Liverpool's participation in Europe and the fate of manager Rafael Benítez, who has again been linked with Juventus, is clearer.

The Americans' valuation of the club at upwards of £500 million is also bound to come under pressure from buyers, but what is certain is that Hicks and Gillett are ready to end their protracted and often bruising struggle to retain control. Until recently the pair remained determined to retain a stake, believing that the club they borrowed close to £300 million to buy in February 2007 remains undervalued.

Hicks in particular has enjoyed his association with Liverpool immensely, valuing their presence alongside his baseball and ice hockey interests in the family business, and has battled to find a way of retaining an interest.

Those hopes have been undone by the Americans' inability to raise fresh investment, either externally or from their own assets, their failure to work together harmoniously, and opposition from supporters that has made life at Anfield uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous.

Unable to raise the money to stay, heavily leveraged across their empires – just this week George Gillett's NASCAR team were reported to have defaulted on a $90 million loan, albeit for technical reasons – and facing continued opposition they have had no option but to prepare an exit strategy.

The crucial factor in the latest developments has been the looming summer deadline to refinance £237 million of loans from RBS and Wachovia.

The original deal with RBS was struck in the benign financial climate of early 2007, when the bank was willing to lend the Americans £185 million to buy Liverpool, with the option of a further £113 million to fund investment, secured against personal guarantees of just $100 million.

Unfortunately for the Americans and RBS, before this original short-term deal expired the financial weather turned for the worse, and they have faced increasingly tough conditions from a bank that is now 70 per cent state-owned.

In January 2008 they refinanced, with RBS lending £183.5 million and Wachovia £61.25 million. The price for this deal was guarantees and letters of credit from the owners to the tune of £185 million, increasing the strain elsewhere.

Last summer they again refinanced but had to pay down £60 million of debt to do so, and the banks made a further reduction of £100 million a condition of any new deal struck this summer.

The search for that investment has been long and fruitless, with the price of a minority stake and the questionable influence it would bring standing in the way of any deal.

Against that backdrop the Americans have sought an alternative route to appeasing the banks, starting with Broughton. His appointment, sealed over dinner in London, was secured after the Americans approached him, rather than following any pressure from the banks, and has bought them time.

With a credible business figure in place and the sale process under way, RBS is preparing to extend the financing deal until the end of the year, giving BarCap a window in which to find a buyer.

Liverpool's managing director, Christian Purslow, has already begun working with them, passing on the details of investors linked with the club in the past year.

It is hoped that the changes will also appease supporters who have run a vehement personal campaign against the owners since they broke a commitment not to use club revenues to service their acquisition loans. It has intensified in recent months, with Hicks finding himself trapped inside Anfield after a Premier League game against Bolton in February by a protest coordinated by the Spirit of Shankly group.

His son, Tom Jnr., meanwhile, also found himself humiliated at the hands of supporters. In 2008 he was drenched with beer after finding himself unwelcome at the Sandon pub near the ground on a match day, and a lurid email exchange with a supporter earlier this year cost him his place on the board.

Liverpool's irate fans are one aspect of life at Anfield neither Hicks nor Gillett will miss when they walk away. Given the bitterness of the past three years, the feeling is likely to be mutual.

In normal circumstances Rafael Benítez would be under huge pressure following Liverpool’s disappointing season, but the owners’ travails may again save him in the short term, should he reject overtures from Juventus reported on Tuesday.

Hicks and Gillett are understood to have agreed to provide a summer transfer fund if a buyer is not found quickly, but they are unlikely to be willing to sack Benítez and pay out his contract given the new circumstances.

The Spaniard retains the support of managing director Christian Purslow, but an offer from another club looks like an increasingly agreeable solution.

Replacing Benítez could be the first priority for the new owners, but building the new Anfield would not be far behind. That project was the reason David Moores sold to the Americans and, following their failure to deliver, the ground remains the key to moving Liverpool on to the next level.