Benitez targets Ayala and Aimar for Anfield revival

Valencia are fighting to keep him but their man looks Merseyside bound. Jason Burt reports
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They were handing out ice creams outside the Mestalla stadium in Valencia on Friday afternoon. It was a farewell gesture, to fans and assembled journalists, from the 32-year-old striker Juan Sanchez, who has been released by the Spanish champions after several years of service. Inside the stadium and the atmosphere was a little chillier, despite the warm Mediterranean sun.

The final training session of the season was taking place and the air was not as light as should be expected from a club who had just won their second league title in three seasons as well as the Uefa Cup. The doors were closed. Unusually, no one was allowed in. Officially, the reason was because the coach, Rafael Benitez, was carrying out fitness tests on his squad before they reassemble on 12 July.

Unofficially, both Benitez and the club's president, Jaime Orti, were in dark moods. A meeting took place after the session between the Valencia director Manuel Llorente and Manuel Garcia Quillon, the agent representing the 44-year-old coach. The topic of conversation was clear: what were Valencia willing to offer to stop Benitez accepting a lucrative four-year deal to move to England and coach Liverpool? The fact that such negotiations took place caused a ripple of alarm back at Anfield.

Orti has a reputation as a no-nonsense chairman. Benitez, despite his astonishing success in having brought the club their first championship for 31 years, has twice faced the sack at Valencia.

Initially Llorente offered a two-year contract extension but it was not enough, not least because it fell far short of the financial terms offered by Liverpool. Benitez also wanted something more elusive, something clearly available at the Premiership club. He wanted greater control of the buying and selling of players and that would mean the removal of the club's powerful, if abrasive, director of football, Jesus Pitarch. Benitez has found the relationship intolerable. At the beginning of last season, after the signing of one player whom he had not asked for, he famously said: "I wanted a sofa and they bought me a lampshade."

Liverpool still intend to bring in Kenny Dalglish into a new technical director's role but that would be much less interventionist. The meeting broke up and it was reported that Benitez was more likely than ever to leave. Then, overnight, it transpired that Orti was perhaps willing to contemplate the departure of Pitarch if it meant the coach stayed. Talks, sources say, will reconvene tomorrow and are delicately poised.

It is a worrying development for Liverpool. Last Monday they sacked Gérard Houllier, safe in the knowledge they had landed their number one target, Benitez. The chief executive, Rick Parry, despite the reluctance to remove Houllier, felt happy as he left for a family holiday, and the local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, by nature cautious, felt confident enough to splash that Benitez was on his way.

The odds are that he probably will still move and, excitingly, it appears he plans to bring the playmaker Pablo Aimar and the defender Roberto Ayala, a perennial Real Madrid target until Walter Samuel signed. They are names to quicken the pulse of Liverpool fans and ones which would appease the criticism from within the dressing-room from the captain, Steven Gerrard, and the striker Michael Owen, whose contract negotiations have reached a delicate stage. Owen is one of Benitez's main champions - the way Valencia disposed of Liverpool in European competition left a deep impression.

Interestingly, other Liverpool players, chiefly Gerrard and the midfielder Danny Murphy, have made plain that their first choice is Alan Curbishley and they would prefer a British coach after six years under Houllier. The Charlton Athletic manager does have a get-out clause in his three-and-a-half-year contract, signed in February, if approached by certain named clubs, including Liverpool, which would allow him to leave for modest compensation.

Curbishley clearly has his admirers in the boardroom, not least because of his success in the transfer market, but Liverpool executives are nervous at his lack of European experience, especially with a vital pre-qualifying tie for the Champions' League to negotiate. Failure would be a disaster. Incredibly, Liverpool are understood not even to be considering Celtic's Martin O'Neill. It is also growing apparent that O'Neill wants to remain in Glasgow for one more season.

According to Benitez's agent, several other European clubs are interested in his client. Although that is hardly a surprise, and although Benitez has said coaching Liverpool would be a "dream", it is clear he intends to keep his options open. His contract expires at the end of next season but, under Spanish law, there is no need for compensation to be paid if he moves. Benitez would merely have to provide a 15-day notice period.

That means the decision clearly rests with the coach. Benitez, partly through courtesy, is also waiting for a meeting of Valencia's shareholders on 6 June and that will determine what money is made available for next season. Even that is complicated. Valencia are £70m in debt and there has been talk, subsequently denied, that several powerful shareholders want to file for bankruptcy.

If Benitez does leave, the club may attempt to lure Claudio Ranieri back or Monaco's Didier Deschamps, who played at the Mestalla at the end of his career. Deschamps was expected to join Juventus last week, after the European Cup final, but that was before Fabio Capello's shock appointment. It is all part of what may be a bewildering pan-European managerial merry-go-round this summer.

Moving to England may be a risk for Benitez. He has worked for a succession of Spanish clubs - unearthing Raul while the coach of Real Madrid's B team - and winning promotion to the Primera Liga with Extremadura and Tenerife in 2001 before introducing an attractive, attacking style at Valencia. There have been failures as well - at Valladolid and Osasuna. Liverpool will hope, if he does come, they are not added to the list.