Liverpool clear to approach Benitez

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The Independent Football

Rafael Benitez bid an emotional farewell to Valencia yesterday, prompting one leading bookmaker to stop taking bets that he will succeed Gérard Houllier as the manager of Liverpool.

Rafael Benitez bid an emotional farewell to Valencia yesterday, prompting one leading bookmaker to stop taking bets that he will succeed Gérard Houllier as the manager of Liverpool.

Benitez wept as he informed a media conference that he would be leaving the Spanish champions and Uefa Cup-holders 12 months before his contract was due to expire. Liverpool are understood to have decided in favour of the 44-year-old, popularly known as "Rafa", ahead of Charlton Athletic's Alan Curbishley, and are ready to offer him a five-year contract.

The Valencia president, Jaime Orti, offered him a two-year extension but Benitez, alluding pointedly to a year of alleged interference in his work by the club's board, said: "This has been one of the most difficult decisions of my career, but I am not going to continue as coach here. I see it as positive that they tried to keep me on. But after the events of this season, which have undermined my morale, I've decided to reconsider my situation."

Liverpool, through their chief executive, Rick Parry, yesterday said that there would be "no immediate announcement" about Houllier's replacement.

However, the way is now clear for the Anfield hierarchy to pursue their interest in the university-educated fluent English speaker who steered Valencia to victory in the Uefa Cup final against Marseille a fortnight ago and to a second championship in three seasons.

One key attraction is that Benitez broke the domestic domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona in much the same way that Liverpool hope to challenge the ascendancy of Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea.

Liverpool made it 13 League titles in 26 years when they won the championship in 1990 but they have not won the League since then. Although they earned a place in the qualifying stages of the Champions' League by claiming fourth place last month, their points total was the club's third-lowest since three points for a win was introduced in 1981. Houllier paid for the failure with his job after six years in charge.

Valencia had reached two successive European Cup finals at the turn of the millennium but had gone 30 years without a championship in La Liga before Benitez took over from Hector Cuper in 2001. As a club whose resources are dwarfed by those of the Castillian and Catalan giants, they were impressed by the way he won promotion on a shoestring at Tenerife.

After unremarkable spells in charge of Extremadura, Real Valladolid and Osasuna, his achievements in the Canaries confirmed the promise that Benitez had shown as coach to the Under-19 side at Real Madrid, the club where he had started a modest playing career.

Benitez's detractors argue that his teams lack style - the same criticism, ironically, that Liverpool supporters increasingly directed at Houllier - and it is true that Valencia's line-up is renowned as a compact, hard-working unit rather than one brimming with "star" names.

Parry and his fellow directors will remember, though, the combination of power and panache with which Benitez's Valencia defeated Liverpool 2-0 in a Champions' League fixture in the autumn of 2002.

Nor is the English game "foreign" to Benitez. Five years ago he took a sabbatical travelling around Europe, during which he was allowed to study the coaching methods and fitness regime at Manchester United. He has remained in contact with the then United coach, Steve McClaren, the current Middlesbrough manager.

Pressed to define his preferred style of play, he invoked Milan under Arrigo Sacchi in the early 1990s. "I like technical and aggressive teams that don't let their opponents play, teams that play the ball with speed and look to score with as few passes as possible."

Benitez is reportedly the favoured candidate of Michael Owen, one of two players, along with Steven Gerrard, whom Parry intimated that Liverpool would consult before making the appointment.

Winning the Premiership at the first attempt, as he did at the Mestalla Stadium, might prove overambitious. Sir Alex Ferguson took seven years to bring the trophy to Old Trafford and even Arsène Wenger needed two seasons at Highbury. The last to achieve the feat was Kenny Dalglish in 1985-86 - at Liverpool.

* The Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is on the verge of abandoning his plans to buy a stake in Liverpool. According to the Nation newspaper, insiders close to the Thai leader said he told them he would consider the scheme a triumph in marketing and spin for the country of Thailand, even if the deal does not go through.