Gerrard eyes Chelsea deal as Benitez takes helm

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The Independent Football

It was the hardest beginning that any manager could have wanted. On the day Rafael Benitez took over at Anfield, Steven Gerrard gave his clearest indication he wished to take his leave of Liverpool.

It was the hardest beginning that any manager could have wanted. On the day Rafael Benitez took over at Anfield, Steven Gerrard gave his clearest indication he wished to take his leave of Liverpool.

It emerged yesterday that the Liverpool captain, for whom Chelsea are prepared to bid more than £30m, has a "gentleman's agreement" with the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, that would allow him to leave if the club did not show "significant improvement" last season. Liverpool's progress from fifth to fourth was not sufficient to keep Gérard Houllier his job as manager and it is apparently not enough for Gerrard.

Parry offered the agreement to the England midfielder as an inducement to sign a new contract last season which guaranteed he would not leave Anfield as a free agent next year. Gerrard now wants permission to speak with Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, who could triple his Liverpool salary.

On the afternoon he was unveiled as the club's 16th manager, Benitez, who rejected a new contract at Valencia to go to Merseyside, said that keeping Gerrard and Michael Owen, another huge talent unhappy at Liverpool's relative lack of success, was an immediate priority. "It's very important; I want to talk with Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen. We will work very hard on this. I came here not to learn English but to win. I want the players to have the same idea, the same mentality. They are playing for the national team, that is the most important thing for them now but afterwards I will talk to them and I need players like them to win. They know what Liverpool needs."

Yesterday, Benitez, who twice overcame the money of Real Madrid and Barcelona to take Valencia to La Liga glory, promised evolution, as opposed to a smashing-up of Houllier's expensively-assembled, underachieving team. He did not, unlike his predecessor, promise to win the League and the European Cup with Liverpool.

Benitez claimed that unlike at Valencia during his first, hugely-successful season in the Mestalla, he did not need to change the attitude of his players. Liverpool were, he said, "a very good team lacking something".

After a spell coaching Real Madrid's B-team, Benitez came to England to study the game here and made a firm friend of Steve McClaren, who was then assistant manager of Manchester United. The greatest difference, Benitez said, between La Liga and the Premiership was "the trust in managers". He will find it nowhere more apparent than at Anfield, who back their manager to the hilt.

However, despite denying he would be looting Valencia of their best players, Benitez will target their left-winger, Vicente Rodriguez, who like his former manager has turned down a new deal with the Spanish champions. Rodriguez is still under contract for a further three years but Manchester United have already expressed an interest in him, although Valencia quoted a price of £15m.

Benitez has the pedigree and the tactical nous to impress at the Kop and he also has the right degree of sentimentality.

He could not, as Houllier could, claim to have watched Bill Shankly's teams at Anfield, but yesterday he related a touching story.

"When I see the club, I see the history. I talked with my assistant manager in Spain about it and he said it would be wonderful. He said to me that when he was perhaps 18 years old he wrote a letter to Liverpool. He needed some shirts for his little football team in his village and they sent him shirts. He told me that in Spain it would be impossible. It is like a dream to be here and talk with you."

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