Rafael Benitez's future at Liverpool was looking increasingly precarious last night after he again tested the club's patience by asserting his desire for overriding authority at Anfield.
Suggestions that the club's American owners are on the brink of sacking Benitez in favour of Jose Mourinho seem premature, but the message from the upper echelons of the club yesterday on the subject of the Spaniard's dismissal was a highly qualified "not yet".
Launching unexpectedly into financial matters after Liverpool's win at Newcastle, Benitez hinted that his overriding concern is the decision by the club's American co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, to place the chief executive, Rick Parry, whom he mentioned by name three times, above him on transfer issues.
"I am the manager of this club, and the team and the squad is my responsibility," said Benitez, who added that the Americans "do not understand how the transfer window works as well as I do." The case of the Argentine Javier Mascherano is at the forefront of his mind. Media Sports Investments, who own the rights to the player, want £17m for a permanent deal at Anfield and have indicated to Liverpool that if a deal is not tied up by January they will seek a pre-contract agreement elsewhere. Milan and Barcelona are both interested.
When Benitez employed a similar public strategy to secure funds at Valencia – complaining at the start of the 2003-04 season: "I've asked for a table and they've given me a lamp" after the signings arranged the by sporting director, Jesus Pitarch, did not satisfy him – the club refused to participate in a slanging match. The money was not forthcoming but the club's stance neutralised the situation and the row died away.
But Benitez is playing a far higher-risk strategy this time. His repeated demands for autonomy make it inconceivable that he can stay at Anfield if he does not have his way. That outcome seems unlikely, since Hicks has proved – with two statements in as many days last week – that he will simply not ignore him, as Valencia did. Hicks and Gillett issued another statement last night indicating there was "nothing new to say", though they underlined Parry's integral role on team issues by saying that he would join them in a meeting with Benitez to "make decisions on the team's requirements" after the Manchester United game on 16 December.
Even if Liverpool complete an unlikely recovery and progress in the Champions League, by beating Porto this week and then Marseilles, Hicks and Gillett may still conclude that their relationship with Benitez is untenable and dismiss him. Expulsion from Europe might even make that decision easier.
Benitez seemed to be taking another ironic strike at the Americans' demands that he concentrate on preparing his team by wearing a track suit for his post match briefing at Newcastle – the Spaniard always wears a suit – and he proceeded to say that Hicks and Gillett only understood the US draft system under which the best players' futures are known.
Benitez also said something "had changed" in his relationship with the Americans since he last spoke to them, after the Arsenal match last month, but he will be able to meet Foster Gillett, George Gillett's son and club managing director, who is in Liverpool on Wednesday for the must-win match against Porto.
Reports that Mourinho – installed last night at 5-2 by Ladbrokes to replace Benitez – might be on his way to Anfield caused palpitations among Liverpool fans, who detest him almost as much as Sir Alex Ferguson. The terms of Mourinho's severance deal from Chelsea decree that he shall not join a Premier League club this season, though Liverpool could conceivably pay money to Chelsea to buy him out of that clause.Reuse content