Benitez ups ante in Anfield's civil war

On eve of Merseyside derby Liverpool manager attacks club's contract negotiations
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The Independent Football

Liverpool join battle in a Merseyside derby with the prospect of a return to the top of the Premier League tonight, but their manager, Rafael Benitez, has deepened the state of civil war at the club yet further by claiming inaction over tying up new contracts for several of his players has jeopardised their futures at Anfield.

Benitez, who has resolutely defended Friday's decision to go public on his decision to reject the new contract Liverpool are offering him, three days before tonight's game with Everton at Anfield, accused the club of being "too slow" to offer the defender Daniel Agger a new deal, leading to speculation that he might be off to Milan. Benitez considers Dirk Kuyt, also waiting for a new deal, to be in the same category.

Benitez, who believes Agger will stay, said: "His commitment to the club is 100 per cent, but [he and his agent] have been waiting and waiting and waiting and they don't know what is happening. This could be the same situation with other players."

Though the delays are a reflection of the uncertainty, bordering on paralysis, that surrounds the club, with the future of its American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett still so unclear, Benitez's latest criticism of the club is another dig at the chief executive, Rick Parry. Benitez remains aggrieved that Parry has the ascendancy when it comes to transfers. It is the owners' steadfast refusal to give Benitez such control which led to the Spaniard's outburst on the issue on Friday.

Though the club's failure to offer Agger a deal last year has led to encouraging noises being made to Real Madrid and Milan, and thus given the Dane far greater negotiating power, the prospects of losing Kuyt to another club are far less likely. He has made it quite clear he would cherish another deal.

The astonishment felt at Anfield by Benitez's decision to make a public pronouncement which puts his future in question will be heightened by his latest claim that he has actually helped the side by his words. "It will help us for the rest of the season for different reasons," Benitez said. "One is that it will take some of the pressure off the players. I am only thinking about the best for my team. Sometimes you have to say something to try and finish it. We cannot talk about football if I don't give an answer. We can't be talking about this until May."

But talking about it the football world will be, and Benitez, whose new, unvarnished antagonism towards his own club came just a week after his outburst against Sir Alex Ferguson, added to the sense of drift at Anfield by admitting that the failure to resolve the contractual problems will affect Liverpool's ability to progress with new transfer targets – even if they are unlikely to buy in January. He is also providing no real sense that the impasse between himself and the owners, part of the same stasis he sees in Agger's situation, can be overcome. "I don't know how difficult it will be to resolve," he said. Despite their positive noises in public, Hicks and Gillett have no confidence in Benitez when it comes to spending. The suggestion that this issue is somehow "finished", as Benitez sees it, defies logic.

Though Liverpool enter the 209th derby at Anfield on a 10-match unbeaten run, and with the possibility of Fernando Torres starting in a line-up to which Alvaro Arbeloa is also restored after a hamstring injury, they face an Everton side revitalised from the one which was humiliated in the Goodison derby defeat back in September.

David Moyes' side are without the suspended Marouane Fellaini, whose presence has become increasingly significant as he has settled, and are bereft of strikers, but they have spirit restored. The four wins out of five secured by the depleted squad have included five successive clean sheets, with the goalless draw against Chelsea to go with them, fostering a belief in Moyes that his side can improve the miserable derby record which is a cloud over the club when nights like tonight approach. Everton have just two wins in 18 derbies and no triumph at Anfield since Kevin Campbell's winner, a decade ago.

There has been evidence, as Everton have taken points from Manchester United and Chelsea in recent months, that they are playing with less fear against the so-called elite sides. The level of skill shown against Chelsea, in particular, gave the lie to the cliché that Everton exist among the leading sides on spirit alone. "If the Premier League was based on spirit, I think Everton would be top," Moyes said. "But I think there are times when we have been under-mentioned in terms of our play. The football we have played recently has been very good. Anyone who is watching us would say that we have played some good football. We are attempting to do that and we are trying to get better."

Moyes believes that his side have built enough confidence since the dark days of last autumn to play stylish football – the "courage to take the ball and to play under pressure," as he puts it. The world has certainly turned since the Goodison defeat, which prompted Moyes to say that his own contractual delays, later resolved, were affecting his team.