Liverpool fear exodus of key players after Benitez walks

Gerrard, Torres, Mascherano and Reina all expected to depart after manager agrees £6m severance deal. Mark Hughes among the leading candidates to take job

The departure of Rafael Benitez as Liverpool manager yesterday raised fears that that an exodus would follow, led by Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina, according to sources inside the club.

The end of Benitez's six-year tenure, which was confirmed at around 3.45pm, has been greeted with dismay by the Liverpool squad and a well-placed source has confirmed that he is unlikely to be the only person leaving Merseyside this summer.

Although the Liverpool dressing room was anything but satisfied with last season's seventh-place finish in the Premier League, talk of dressing-room unrest is relatively wide of the mark. Benitez may have maintained a professional rather than paternal relationship with his players, but he was widely liked by his squad.

The loss of any of the four names mentioned above would be little short of catastrophic for Liverpool, whose chronic lack of strength in depth was a leading cause of last season's failings and Benitez's subsequent downfall.

Although Reina has only recently signed a six-year contract, he is thought to be furious at the developments, while Mascherano and Torres are equally concerned, not just about Benitez's exit but also by the lack of funds available to strengthen the squad. It is the combination of those two issues that is thought to lie behind the belief that they could be on their way.

However, of all those potentially heading towards the door, it is Gerrard who would represent the most significant loss and the one that would hurt Liverpool's supporters the most.

In his 12 years as a first-team player at Anfield, Gerrard has acquired an almost talismanic status, but even he is apparently beginning to wonder if this is the end. The Spanish newspaper Marca – Real Madrid's direct line into their domestic media – has been reporting for several days that the club's new manager, Jose Mourinho, wants to attract the Liverpool captain with a bid worth £30m, and the removal of Benitez makes that more likely.

The Spaniard was unhappy last summer with Real's conduct in their ultimately successful approach for midfielder Xabi Alonso and he was highly reluctant ever to deal again with the club that he had once, ironically enough, played for and coached. His demise, therefore, eliminates one potential hurdle that Mourinho would have to overcome, although any jostling for Gerrard's signature is likely to be delayed until after the World Cup.

After a morning of fevered speculation as to when an official announcement would be made, Benitez's mid-afternoon departure was confirmed with a statement on the club website. A deal worth £6m has been hammered out between Benitez and the Liverpool board, led by the managing director, Christian Purslow, and although a deal by "mutual consent" is the agreed party line, the passion behind Benitez's farewell highlighted his reluctance to leave the club he guided to the Champions League title in 2005 and the FA Cup a season later.

"It is very sad for me to announce that I will no longer be manager of Liverpool FC," he said. "I would like to thank all of the staff and players for their efforts. I'll always keep in my heart the good times I've had here, the strong and loyal support of the fans in the tough times and the love from Liverpool.

"I have no words to thank you enough for all these years and I am very proud to say that I was your manager. Thank you so much once more and always remember: You'll never walk alone."

Liverpool's chairman, Martin Broughton, paid tribute to a man who, rightly or wrongly, was still adored by large sections of the club's fan base. "Rafa will for ever be part of Liverpool folklore after bringing home the Champions League following the epic final in Istanbul," he said. "But after a disappointing season, both parties felt a fresh start would be best for all concerned."

The race is now on to find a long-term replacement, a task that Purslow and Kenny Dalglish, the club's former manager and current ambassador, will oversee.

Mark Hughes, the former Manchester City manager, is thought to be intrigued by the role, and his representatives have begun sounding out Liverpool to see whether that feeling is reciprocated.

The sacked Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini would turn his back on a lucrative contract with Fenerbahce to take over. The Chilean coach, who was replaced by Mourinho earlier this week, speaks perfect English and sources close to him have indicated he would be tempted despite the Istanbul offer.

Upheaval at Anfield: The main players

* Christian Purslow, Liverpool's managing director and former ally of Rafa Benitez, has grown in influence as Tom Hicks and George Gillett have retreated into the background.

* Kenny Dalglish, the former manager, may step back into the breach w hile helping find a replacement for Benitez.

* Tom Hicks and George Gillett claimed Benitez would be given more money for transfers.

* The future of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's best players, is in doubt.

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