Benitez calm at heart of Anfield storm

Liverpool's manager was remarkably cool yesterday despite Steven Gerrard's problems, his recent outbursts and the speculation about the club's possible sale.
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For a manager of a club where crisis and mystery are taking turns to put the football in the shade, Rafa Benitez had a surprisingly sunny disposition yesterday. There were no rants about other managers in his weekly press briefing. No conspiracy theories. No moans about the terms of his contract offer. No griping that his side seem to have forgotten how to win and ceded top spot in the Premier League in the process.

Yes, he said, he was absolutely certain that his captain, Steven Gerrard, was in the right frame of mind for football, even having arrived at training directly from a court hearing relating to charges that carry a theoretical prison term if proven.

No, he was not going to comment on reports of a proposed takeover by the billionaire Al-Kharafi family of Kuwait, whose figurehead, Nasser al-Kharafi, 64, is known to have come close to buying the club last summer for £500m before pulling out of the deal at the last moment. "I was really surprised with the news," was all he would say, and refused point blank to discuss further a subject that looked murkier by the hour last night.

Benitez seemed so relaxed, in fact, that he talked repeatedly and cheerily about the strength and depth of his squad and said it was not a necessity to buy any players in the January transfer window.

Even when he was asked for his view of the move from Wigan Athletic to Aston Villa of Emile Heskey , a player he is known to have wanted to target in the summer, he replied breezily: "We have Torres, Keane, Ngog, Nemeth, Kuyt and Babel, so we have strikers and they are all available for the weekend, which is the most important thing. I am really pleased with my squad, I have confidence in my players."

Maybe Rafa already has a secret get-out from the Anfield madhouse, like a job at Real Madrid. Maybe he had just taken a particularly good training session. He did say, after all, that Gerrard had "scored two or three really good goals in the five-a-side". Or maybe, the string of distractions cascading around him have become so numerous, there are too many to worry about, so he's given up worrying altogether, apart from about tomorrow's FA Cup match with Everton.

On Gerrard he said: "I don't think he has been affected by [the court case] at all. I asked him about it and asked how he was and he said he was OK. Then we trained as normal.

"Steven was working as normal in the training and he was scoring goals, and you could see the spirit was there that he always has. Steven is in the right frame of mind. I have watched him in training, and he is fine. He is a very good professional and showed he can concentrate on the job – and he knows he has our full support."

Benitez would not confirm that Gerrard would start against Everton, although it is expected he will play. Changes will be made, though, despite Benitez insisting the FA Cup is "a massive competition, important for us and for the fans". Goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri, defender Andrea Dossena, midfielders Lucas, Yossi Benayoun and Javier Mascherano and winger Ryan Babel could all come into the team.

Benitez's reluctance to talk about a Kuwaiti bid was understandable. He was totally unaware of any talks between either of Liverpool's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and the Al-Kharafi family.

It is also understood that Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, knew nothing about any takeover either, and that any negotiations that have taken place "and the extent and content of talks are disputed" were arranged privately by the owners, assisted by Liverpool's finance director, Philip Nash, and commercial director, Ian Ayre.

In any case, the reported deal for the Al-Kharafi family to buy Liverpool looked less than concrete last night when a source in the Middle East told the Kuwait Times that no offer was on the table at all from the Al-Kharafi group.

The conglomerate has interests in banking, communications and fast food among other businesses including Port Ghalib, a luxury holiday complex on the Red Sea.

"Al-Kharafi Group is not at the moment looking to a buy a club," a source within the group said. "Our main concern is to promote and advertise Port Ghalib and this rumour about Liverpool probably came from that."

Al-Kharafi is, apparently, looking to sponsor a major football club to help to advertise Port Ghalib. Credence was added to the buyout story because informed City sources have confirmed that Nasser Al-Kharafi came close to buying Liverpool last summer.

He pulled out at the last moment, with one source saying that it was because Hicks wanted to retain a seat on the board and a small holding in the club, which he mentioned only late in the day.

The timing and way in which news of the latest bid broke thickens the plot because it is understood that a PR firm linked to Hicks leaked it. At the same time his main UK-based PR firm, Financial Dynamics, offered a firm on-the-record denial that any sale was imminent.

One theory is that Hicks wants to flush out interested parties to take the club off his hands before July, when the £350m he and Gillett owe to Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia is due to be repaid or rescheduled. They do not have the funds to repay the money "used to buy the club" and the banks want it paid or will take control of the club.

Another theory is that Al-Kharafi has been in talks about some kind of partnership and, because of past interest in buying, Hicks hopes that interest can be rekindled.

A third theory is that Hicks wants a minority investor to take a slice of the club off his hands at a big price. Any publicity linking big-time serious investors with bids can only add help, he feels.

In the meantime, Benitez has a football match to oversee.

Scouse sensations: The top Merseyside FA Cup derbies

Everton 1–0 Liverpool

Fifth round, 1967

Over 100,000 people viewed the tie, 64,318 packed into Goodison Park while another 40,169 watched on giant screens at Anfield. Everton won 1-0 with a goal from Alan Ball – his third in three derbies that season.

Liverpool 2–2 Everton

Semi-final, 1977

At 2-2 referee Clive Thomas, despite being unsighted, disallowed Bryan Hamilton's late goal for Everton because he felt Hamilton could not possibly have scored without handling. Liverpool won the replay 3-0, the first a disputed penalty.

Liverpool 3–1 Everton

Final, 1986

Gary Lineker gave Everton the perfect start with his 38th goal of the season, but the Reds hit back through Craig Johnston and an Ian Rush double.

Liverpool 3–2 Everton (aet)

Final, 1989

A derby that united a broken-hearted city in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster. Emotions were raw and the tie failed to live up to expectations. Everton substitute Stuart McCall twice equalised but Ian Rush settled it, scoring twice in extra-time.

Everton 4–4 Liverpool

Fifth round replay, 1991

Four times Everton levelled including in the 90th and 120th minutes. The following morning Kenny Dalglish resigned as Reds manager, saying he felt his "head would explode". Everton won the replay 1-0.

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