Liverpool hoping for fight off rivals for Mascherano

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The Independent Football

Liverpool are on the verge of signing Javier Mascherano and hope to complete a deal before next week - but were last night facing late competition from two other clubs, one in the Premiership, the other in Spain.

Mascherano is understood to be keen to move to Anfield but his representative Kia Joorabchian is still hoping to secure a better deal than is currently on offer. Liverpool, who held a board meeting yesterday to discuss the offer, are proposing taking the 22-year-old on loan until the end of the season with a view to a permanent transfer being completed in the summer.

Liverpool believe they are clear front-runners for the 22-year-old Argentine who moved to West Ham United on the final day of the summer transfer window. He is no longer wanted at Upton Park, having made just seven appearances - five in the Premiership and two in the Uefa Cup - this season. Indeed, Mascherano has played just six minutes since the defeat at Tottenham Hotspur on 22 October, when he was bitten by Jermain Defoe.

As revealed by The Independent, his fate was sealed once Joorabchian's consortium failed to take control of West Ham. The new chairman, Eggert Magnusson, does not want Mascherano nor his fellow Argentine Carlos Tevez because of the controversial terms under which they were signed. Privately West Ham pledged to move the pair on at the earliest opportunity. They will not receive any money in the proposed deal.

However, Magnusson believed that it would be impossible for either player to leave this month. The rules of Fifa, the game's world governing body, state that a player is not allowed to play for three clubs in one season, but the organisation, which has written to West Ham to spell out its rules after the club sought clarification, can nevertheless be petitioned. It will be argued that Mascherano's career, and earning potential, is being harmed by his current plight and lack of games.

Precedent has been set and the Argentine Football Association, a powerful voice within Fifa, is willing to lobby on Mascherano's behalf. It is more difficult for Tevez to leave before the end of the season because he is playing at present. The Argentines will also argue that because Mascherano has played in South America, for the Brazilian club Corinthians, and in Europe over a year it actually constitutes two seasons.

The Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, regards the midfielder, who played in every one of his country's matches during the last World Cup, as ideal cover for Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, especially as Mohamed Sissoko and Bolo Zenden are still recovering from injury.

Juventus have dropped out of the bidding for Mascherano while Real Zaragoza have recently expressed interest in him. Joorabchian had priced the player at €25m (£16m).

Mascherano himself has recently stepped up his campaign to leave West Ham. "I came to England to do well," he said earlier this week "but I have not had the opportunities necessary to show what I can do."

Recently Mascherano has not even made a place among the substitutes for West Ham.

Liverpool also expect to sign Lucas Neill, after a lengthy pursuit, within the next few days and certainly before their next Premiership game at Watford on 13 January, despite interest in the Blackburn Rovers defender from West Ham and Newcastle United.

The Australian international is out of contract at Ewood Park in the summer and has made his preference for Anfield known, although Blackburn's valuation of the 28-year-old could yet prove an obstacle to a swift resolution to the deal.

Rovers sought £2m plus Stephen Warnock for Neill in August and their manager, Mark Hughes, remains keen to have the Liverpool left back included in any transfer.

However, Liverpool are not prepared to offer cash and Warnock - who is also exciting the interest of Roy Keane at Sunderland - for a player who may resist other advances in order to move to Anfield on a free transfer in six months.

Should Neill finally complete his move to Anfield, he will be eligible for the Champions' League despite featuring in the Uefa Cup for Blackburn this season. New Uefa rules allow a Champions' League squad to include one player who has appeared in the secondary competition.

Another player bound for Liverpool is the Hamilton Academicals midfielder James McCarthy, a 16-year-old valued at an initial £100,000.

* Internazionale have dismissed reports that their former World Player of the Year Luis Figo is set to sign for the Saudi Arabian club Al Ittihad. "I have no intention of giving Figo away to any club," said the Inter coach, Roberto Mancini.