Wrangling over Benitez's golden handshake may be all that stops a wave goodbye
With Juventus set to announce his arrival, the Liverpool manager's farewell to Anfield could deliver arch-rivals United a 19th title
There is a chance that all of the endgames – for Chelsea, Manchester United and Rafael Benitez – may arrive at once at Anfield tomorrow afternoon and if the match against Carlo Ancelotti's side happens to conclude with Liverpool taking the three points and Benitez running to the Kop, removing that tight-fitting shirt of his and bidding a valedictory farewell to the fans, then football will have been served with one of its supreme ironies.
The last meaningful act of the Spaniard's theatrical life in British football might have been to allow his nemesis, United, to deal him the last and cruellest cut of all and take the 19th League title – one more than Liverpool – they always vowed would be theirs. Football can be a desperately spiteful game at times.
With Liverpool's last hope of silverware having disappeared in the ashes of Thursday night's bitter Europa League semi-final defeat to Atletico Madrid, and Juventus adamant yesterday that he is about to become their manager, Benitez drove another nail into his relationship with the club yesterday, declaring that he has only resisted alternative job offers put his way over the past year because of the supporters. "I'm here... because of those fans," Benitez said. "I have had massive offers over the last year and I decided to stay because of the fans. If I am here it is because of them." The fans alone? he was asked. "Yes. I am here despite massive offers, but I said I will stay. I gave them my word."
The superficial question after the Chelsea game has been done and dusted is whether those fans can prove enough of an incentive once again. The real issue is whether the ambitions of Juventus, Europa League competitors like Liverpool will almost certainly be next season, represent a better offer than the current chaos at Anfield, where the owners and senior management seem to show very little sign of encouraging him to stay.
Benitez would not say where ideally he wanted to be, come July. "I will not talk too much about an ideal world. The situation is the situation that we have and Chelsea is the target." But the noises from Turin create an increasing sense that it is over for him here, with suggestions that Juventus are only delaying announcing his arrival, on a four-year contract worth £3.5m a year after tax, out of courtesy to Liverpool.
Set against the complicated emotional attachment he has for Merseyside – his wife, Montse, has always urged him to stay on at Anfield – are a series of clear contrasts between Juve and Liverpool. The Italian club want him, have a new chairman, Andrea Agnelli, who plans to spend £60m in each of the next three summers in a quest for Champions League success, and will have a new stadium, integral to their business model, completed in 12 months' time. Liverpool show no sign of wanting Benitez, have a new chairman whose mission is to sell the club rather than buy players, and are still years off opening a new stadium central to their business model.
With alternative new horizons seemingly closed off to Benitez – the Real Madrid-affiliated paper Marca exhorted Jose Mourinho to move to the Bernabeu yesterday – it is tempting to view Juve's move to seal a deal for the Brazilian midfielder Hernanes, a player in the mould of Xabi Alonso and whom Benitez is known to like – as yet another indicator that the wind is blowing towards the River Po for him. Reports in Turin suggest that the only incomplete aspect of a deal put in place by Benitez's agent, Manuel Garcia Quillon, is the buonuscita ("good exit") – the golden handshake equivalent to one year's salary that Benitez feels he is entitled to. Carlo Ancelotti, incidentally, believes Benitez will flourish in Italy. "His teams are tactically very, very good and so, in Italy, he would not have a problem," the Chelsea manager said yesterday.
The Liverpool hierarchy's apparent failure to exhort Benitez to stay seems like folly. Where do they find a better manager than the one who came so close to eclipsing Sir Alex Ferguson 12 short months ago and who, two months before that, was rolling over Real Madrid home and way, and briefly establishing Liverpool as the strongest force in Europe? There are suggestions that some at Anfield want an English manager now – but will Martin O'Neill or Roy Hodgson take them higher? Will high-bracket managers want to take on a club with boundless expectations and minimal cash? Will Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano be willing to stay under a new order? With the club in such a state of financial limbo, there is a genuine risk that Liverpool, minus Benitez, could drift into a period of deep and inexorable decline.
Surveying the wreckage of a 120-minute game against Atletico and the manner of the defeat, Benitez admitted that it would be much tougher to raise his players tomorrow than it might have been. "It will be difficult, we know," he said. "We will leave them to be with their families, then start again. Chelsea is an important game and we have to be ready. We have not got too much time now but they have to be ready anyway." But any sense the players have that the manager is leaving may create an incentive which defies the weariness. Ancelotti may be dealing with forces way beyond his control.
Anfield: The Benitez years
*25 May 2005: Liverpool's fifth European Cup.
Benitez masterminds a miraculous comeback against Milan in Istanbul as Liverpool claim their fifth European title on penalties after a 3-3 draw.
*13 May 2006: FA Cup victory.
The Spaniard wins his first domestic trophy with another penalty triumph after a thrilling final with West Ham in Cardiff.
*4 July 2007: Fernando Torres signs.
Rafa finally gets the 30-goals-a-season striker he had long desired, signing Torres from Atletico Madrid for £20m on a six-year deal.
*6 November 2007: Liverpool 8 Besiktas 0.
Midfielder Yossi Benayoun scores a hat-trick as Liverpool surpass the record Champions League win.
*14 March 2009: Manchester United 1 Liverpool 4.
Benitez took Liverpool to Old Trafford knowing anything less than a win would end the title race. His team deliver in style to embarrass United.
*18 January 2005: Burnley 1 Liverpool 0. FA Cup third round:
Djimi Traoré's comical own goal sees Benitez lose on his FA Cup debut.
*12 January 2008: Hicks and Gillett speak to Jürgen Klinsmann.
It is reported that Tom Hicks speaks to Klinsmann about the possibility of him taking over behind Benitez's back.
*16 February 2008: Liverpool 1 Barnsley 2, FA Cup fifth round.
The Reds let a 1-0 lead slip and go out at home to Championship side Barnsley.
*9 August 2009: Alberto Aquilani signs.
Benitez signs the Roma midfielder for £17m in the summer of 2009, but the Italian fails to score until the Reds play bottom club Portsmouth in March.
*24 November 2009: Liverpool crash out of the Champions League.
A home loss to Lyons and two defeats against Fiorentina end Liverpool's European Cup campaign.
*29 April 2009: More European misery.
Liverpool beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 at home in the Europa League semi-finals but go out on away goals.
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