Time running out for Reds in race to satisfy Benitez's lofty ambitions

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The Independent Online

The city of Liverpool's attempts to mark its elevation to European Capital of Culture in 2008 have been cursed with ill fortune - even the inventive publicity stunt that saw Steven Gerrard wear a special "08" shirt during Saturday's tempestuous Merseyside derby lasted only 18 minutes before he was dismissed. And the prospect of that other momentous event scheduled for 2008, the opening of the new Anfield stadium, also appears to be receding with indecent haste.

Yesterday's announcement to the Stock Exchange that Liverpool football club were still examining possible investors and even potential takeovers gave the immediate impression that progress was being made towards raising funds for that new stadium. However, the statement was more a clarification of the club's position - enforced by the Takeover Panel - and yet another sign that a process that has already been running for three years is still very far from being completed.

Liverpool's dire need for greater investment is no secret. When Rafael Benitez hinted recently that he would need significant funds to strengthen his squad to mount a genuine challenge to Chelsea's domestic dominance, it scared the Liverpool hierarchy into offering their manager a new £10m contract - as yet unsigned. But in terms of seizing upon the momentum of last season's European Cup success, Benitez's statement did not tell the club's chairman, David Moores, his fellow directors, chief executive Rick Parry or Liverpool's supporters anything they did not already know.

It was in March 2004 that Liverpool appointed the financial consultants Hawkpoint to find investors after their own searches over the previous 12 months proved fruitless. Many of those who were considered were unpromising. Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's Prime Minister, proposed using a lottery in his country to raise the money. The American billionaire Robert Kraft, who owns American football's New England Patriots, held talks with Parry that came to nothing while Steve Morgan, an existing shareholder and millionaire property developer, found his personal enmity with Moores an obstacle.

Despite an insistence that he would never allow personal sentiment to stand in the way of progress, and would sell his majority shareholding in the club to the right buyer, Moores has so far resisted all inquiries, believing the club to be worth double the £100m it is currently valued at.

Understandably, he will sell only at a premium price and, as a chairman with a genuine affection for the club his family has controlled for more than 40 years, only when he is given assurances about the way that Liverpool would be run. Time, however, is against him. Juan Villalonga, the Spanish businessman who has become the latest investor to be linked with an takeover, captured the mood of Moores' detractors when he declared that his consortium wanted Liverpool to change from a "domestic to a global brand".

The obvious place to start would be Liverpool's matchday revenue and it is there that the development of a new stadium proves crucial to future growth. With Manchester United in the process of extending Old Trafford's capacity to 75,000 and Arsenal about to move to the Emirates Stadium, holding 60,000, the pressure is building on Liverpool to leave Anfield - where the capacity is 45,362 - especially as they approach a new deadline for European funding that is essential to their proposed new 55,000 stadium.

At Liverpool's AGM last year, Parry revealed that building work on the stadium had to commence by March 2006 in order for the club to move to the new Stanley Park ground, just 300 yards from the original Anfield, in time for the city's 2008 celebrations.

Today, there is not even the beginnings of a construction site. The club's proposals only received government support last year on the basis that the local community would also benefit, with Stanley Park due to be restored to its Victorian splendour, improvements made to local housing and the existing Anfield site turned into a memorial garden and walkway to the new arena.

On Friday the deadline for an £11m grant from the European Union that is vital to the stadium's development expires, although sources at the club say that they have no plans to shelve the move just yet. The cost of the new ground could be as much as £200m, and keeping up with Benitez's ambitious plans for improvement will not be cheap either. If Villalonga is to be Liverpool's saviour, he needs to play his hand quickly.

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