Roy Hodgson has warned Rafael Benitez that he is prepared to allow Javier Mascherano to leave Liverpool for nothing in two years' time rather than sell him to Internazionale for less than his true value.
Ever since his arrival at Anfield to succeed Benitez as manager, Hodgson has indicated he is prepared to play hardball with the Argentina captain, whose first act on returning to training was to hand in a transfer request with the expectation he would rejoin Benitez at San Siro.
Hodgson admitted there had been a gentlemen's agreement between Mascherano and the Liverpool hierarchy that, if he did not force a move to Barcelona in 2009, the club would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave Merseyside, where his wife has been reluctant to settle, this summer.
With only two years remaining on his contract, the Inter president, Massimo Moratti, was confident that Liverpool would do a deal since Mascherano's transfer value would start to fall dramatically. They would want around £25m for a player for whom they paid £17m in February 2008. However, Hodgson insisted yesterday that if he did leave, it would be on Liverpool's terms or not at all.
"He has the offer of a new contract from us," said Hodgson. "However, as far as I am concerned, I'd be quite happy to work the two years with him and, if he then wanted to walk away, then so be it. The nicest thing of all would be if he signed a new contract. It is there for him but nobody is putting him under any pressure.
"But he has also made it clear that he doesn't regard it as a hardship to play for Liverpool. In fact it is the reverse. His problem is a familiar one in that his wife doesn't want to come to Liverpool, so when he is here he lives alone. If he moved to a Spanish or Mediterranean club, the chances are his wife would join him there.
"But he also realises that he is a very valuable player, the best at what he does in the world, and a club has to come along and offer what he is worth. If that happens, and we yet again said no and reneged on what we had said to him earlier, then we would have an unhappy player.
"I am very happy if he remains with us because in an ideal world, if it were simply a situation of: 'Would we be prepared to listen to offers for Mascherano'? I would say no. I don't care what money is offered. It is only this promise that was made a year ago that lingers over my head, which means I am prepared to go even as far as this."
When asked if he thought Benitez should be fair to his former club, Hodgson said: "I learnt many years ago not to use the word 'fair' when it comes to football." However, having signed Christian Poulsen from Juventus as a like-for-like replacement – even if Hodgson did concede that Mascherano was the best defensive midfielder in the world – the odds must still be he will leave.
Significantly, while Mascherano is likely to start against Manchester City on Monday, he will not play in this evening's Europa League qualifier with Trabzonspor because of a slight strain. If he did, he would be ineligible for Inter's defence of their European Cup until the Champions League reaches its knockout stage – a move that would affect Mascherano's transfer value. When they learned of Liverpool's interest in Poulsen, Juventus immediately pulled him out of their Europa League qualifier with Shamrock Rovers for this reason.
Poulsen, with whom Hodgson worked at Copenhagen a decade ago, is in the squad to face the Turkish Cup winners at Anfield but his manager doubted he is ready to start. "He has had a pre-season with Juventus," he said. "But the Italian clubs, because they start their season later than us, begin by taking their players into the mountains and running the hell out of them. Then, three weeks before the season starts, they get the ball out. Christian has done his running but he hasn't done much playing."
Hodgson confirmed that he was monitoring the Swedish striker, Ola Toivonen, who has scored 24 times in 49 appearances for PSV Eindhoven and said that the arrival of Brad Jones as an understudy to Pepe Reina meant he was prepared to allow his reserve keeper, Diego Cavalieri, to join Cesena in Serie A.
"He is a very good goalkeeper and a very good person," said Hodgson. "But he made it clear to me at the start of the season that, after three years of watching Pepe play every week, he might, if he is not careful, lose his goalkeeping ability or his status as a first-team keeper."
Liverpool v Trabzonspor, ITV 1, 19.30-22.00