'I will be here next season,' insists Benitez

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The Independent Football

Their tactics differ not only on the pitch. Whereas Jose Mourinho pursued the pre-match agenda in Barcelona to divert attention from his players, Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, made a desperate attempt yesterday to ensure the European Cup holders are focused only on retrieving a Champions' League deficit against Benfica and not his own uncertain Anfield future.

He failed and, though he may consider the continued speculation a dereliction of his duties, the Spaniard moved to allay concerns of an imminent defection to Madrid or Milan by insisting that: "It is my intention to be here next season."

In echoes of last season's final group game in the competition, when they required a two-goal triumph over Olympiakos to progress, Liverpool enter tonight's tie against Ronald Koeman's Benfica with doubts over a major asset. Then it was Steven Gerrard, who on the eve of the game made it known he would look elsewhere if the club could not match his ambitions.

Now it is Benitez, who knows both Internazionale and his boyhood club Real Madrid are interested in his services should he become disillusioned with Liverpool's three-year failure to attract the investment that would not only advance their proposed £160m stadium on Stanley Park but allow their ambitious manager to challenge Mourinho's dominance of the Premiership.

The search for new investment continues tonight, with Liverpool seeking to overturn a 1-0 first-leg deficit from the Estadio da Luz in order to defend their title and claim the extra £3m that a place in the quarter-finals, along with TV revenue and gate receipts, provides. "If we win this game it will make the financial situation a little easier," Benitez admitted.

Liverpool, however, will have to offer their manager a significant transfer fund this summer for the Spaniard to remain convinced that the five-year plan he committed to in 2004 can be achieved and also to keep his potential suitors from the door.

"I do not have problems with the board, with the chief executive, or the chairman and I don't want to be distracting people [from the Benfica game] by talking about my future," insisted Benitez.

"I have three more years on my contract and I am happy. I want to improve and I want to win. I will be here for the next game but you never know about the future. If I can, I will be here next season. It is my intention to be here next season."

Clearly exasperated by the subject, which his own agent, Manuel Garcia Quilon, fuelled by admitting he was aware of interest from Madrid - although no official approach has been made - Benitez added: "I am focused on the game, the next game, the season and the three competitions. I want to win those three competitions if possible. I don't want to talk about my future. If some people start talking about my future in Italy and Spain I cannot control the situation. I've said it before, I want to win and I want to progress. It is very clear, it is official, I have three years left on my contract and I want to see them out."

The uncertainty over the manager's long-term future at Anfield has not been lost on the Liverpool players, a situation that Benitez was anxious to avoid but which became inevitable once Florentino Perez resigned as president of Real Madrid and sparked renewed debate over the direction of the Spanish club.

"Everyone is aware of other clubs wanting him but he is the Liverpool manager now and I hope that continues for a long time," Robbie Fowler said. "In an ideal world there wouldn't be any speculation but you can't stop people from talking and the other clubs he has been linked with just demonstrates how well he has done at Liverpool."

Luisao's late header in Lisbon a fortnight ago has left Liverpool in the precarious position in which they have thrived so often in the past at Anfield but which their current problems in front of goal may exacerbate.

Benfica, however, did not resemble a formidable opponent in Portugal and Benitez declared: "We only need one goal to give us an extra 30 minutes to get a second goal. In Portugal I didn't have confidence we would score because we didn't attack well. I will be confident at Anfield though."

Liverpool (probable): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Garcia, Gerrard, Alonso, Kewell; Morientes, Fowler.

Benfica (probable): Moretto; Alcides, Luisao, Anderson, Leo; Fernandes, Beto, Petit, Simao, Robert; Gomes.

Referee: Massimo De Santis (Italy).