Monday, November 16, 2009

Rafa threatens to quit if star players are sold

Rafael Benítez reassured Liverpool supporters last night that he would never sanction the sale of Fernando Torres to pay part of the club’s debt.

Asked whether an offer of £100 million or more would tempt Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr to sell their superstar striker, the Liverpool manager smiled and said: "It won’t happen. I’d quit."

In a wide-ranging interview with The Times — his first with a British national newspaper — Benítez strenuously defended his record in the transfer market, but admitted that he had taken gambles and made mistakes.

He explained why Alberto Aquilani is a bargain buy, spoke with pride about the transformation he has overseen at Liverpool and talked of his desire to leave a winning legacy at the club.

The former Valencia manager believes that he has overseen huge changes since arriving at Anfield in 2004. "There is a massive difference between five years ago and now," Benítez said. "The name of the club round the world is at the same level as it was in the 1980s. It’s a fantastic achievement. Everybody talks about Liverpool in a good way. And we will get better."

More worrying for Liverpool is that while Benítez underlines his commitment at every opportunity — "I want to leave a winning legacy," he said — Real Madrid may come calling.

The second galáctico era is stalling and Manuel Pellegrini, the Real coach, may be on his way out. Real made a huge offer to Benítez at the beginning of the year — their third — and sources in Madrid say they are preparing another. For the moment, though, Benítez is concentrating on one team.

The Spaniard, 49, signed a new five-year contract in February but has been under pressure this season after a poor start. Liverpool have suffered five defeats in 12 Barclays Premier League matches and are on the verge of elimination from the Champions League. To make matters worse, Torres and Steven Gerrard have suffered groin problems and Aquilani, their big summer signing, has been sidelined through injury, only making his league debut eight days ago.

"People are worried," Benítez said. "But the team will improve. When we have key players on the pitch we are as good as anyone. We have proved this in the past."

Signing Aquilani for £17 million from Roma to replace Xabi Alonso was great business, he insisted. "We can only buy one or two big, £20 million players a year," Benítez said. "If we want to have money available, then we have to sell some players. We have to sell expensive and buy as cheaply as possible.

"Aquilani fit would be £20-30 million. We checked with doctors and they said he would be out one, maybe two months. We have lost some time, but I signed the player for five years, not five weeks. We needed to take the risk."

What will not happen, though, Benítez insisted, is the departure of Torres.

Even with the club’s debts at £245 million, he laughed off the prospect of having to sell him. "I’m confident it will never happen," he said. "If it did, I’d resign."

The relative lack of cash at the club has made risk-taking essential for Liverpool and Benítez admits to making mistakes in the market.

"When we have spent big, normally it’s been very good business," he said. "Torres, Mascherano, Reina, Alonso. Keane is a good player but we had to sell him because he was not playing at the level we knew he could play. Ryan [Babel] was signed for the future and we are waiting for his improvement. He has to be more consistent.

"With the fringe players, we needed to take a gamble on Bosmans and one, two million-pound players. Some of these players have not been good enough for us. It is a risk you have to accept when there is not too much money about."

When Aquilani arrived, Alonso, a crowd favourite, left. In a bitter parting, there were suggestions that the relationship between Benítez and Alonso — who was sold for £20 million profit — had broken down. The manager dismissed the theory.

"He put in a transfer request," Benítez said. "We had a professional and good relationship. Some people say the manager must put his arm around the player’s shoulder. I don’t know too many managers who do this. Some managers here in England don’t even see the training sessions. How can you put your arm around the shoulders of the players if you are not there?"

Benítez’s relationships with the co-owners and Rick Parry, the former chief executive, have sometimes been frosty, but the manager is quick to praise Christian Purslow, Parry’s successor. "Since Christian’s first day I know I’ve had his support, inside and outside the club," he said.

Manager and chief executive may face a difficult transfer window, with the priority being to lower the wage bill. Three or four players may head out of the Anfield exit door, with none of the cash heading back to Benítez, but there will be no civil war behind the scenes. "We are progressing," he said. "I’m happy and want to do the best for this club."

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