Football: Houllier ready for Real battle

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The Independent Online
GERARD HOULLIER has accepted the reality that he could lose Steve McManaman but the Liverpool manager will not let him go without a fight.

A new contract for McManaman, who misses today's game with Leeds because of an Achilles injury, will be one of the first tasks for the Frenchman following Roy Evans' emotional departure on Thursday. But with Real Madrid having declared their interest after Liverpool's Uefa Cup success against Valencia earlier this month, time is against Houllier.

The Real Madrid president, Lorenzo Sanz, has claimed that progress has been made in negotiations. "We've moved closer to the point where we can think about a satisfactory resolution to the matter," he sa id.

McManaman cannot officially talk to clubs until 1 January but his advisors can discuss his future with any interested parties. And Houllier knows there is little Liverpool can do to stop McManaman quitting if he wants to. A four-year contract, with a one-year option, is believed to be on the table, and Houllier said: "Steve has never hidden the fact that he wanted at one stage of his career to go abroad, and if he finds the opportunity this season, I will feel sorry for the club and I will regret it because I would like him to stay. But I am not resigned to him going and we will continue the battle to keep him at the club."

Houllier and his new assistant, Phil Thompson, will be missing several top players for their first game together against Leeds, including Michael Owen, who has a hamstring problem but could be back for next weekend's trip to Aston Villa. Steve Staunton and Phil Babb are available after Fifa ruled that the Republic of Ireland players did not have to miss the game ahead of Wednesday's international against Yugoslavia, but Jason McAteer is suspended.

Tim Flowers will be out of Blackburn's goal for the next two months after a freak training ground accident and may need an operation to repair tendons in his shoulder.

The goalkeepers Alan Kelly and Ian Bennett are about to do a pounds 3m-rated swap between Sheffield United and Birmingham City. The Republic of Ireland's Kelly met Trevor Francis yesterday to discuss terms about the transfer and is expected to join over the weekend.