Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez has stressed he is committed to the club but admits he is flattered by the charm offensive being undertaken by Juventus.
The Italian giants made the Spaniard their top target almost a fortnight ago and sacking coach Ciro Ferrara today and putting Alberto Zaccheroni in place until the end of the season has only increased speculation about a move for the Reds boss in the summer.
Benitez only signed a new five-year contract, worth a reported £4.8million annually, 10 months ago but an early exit from the Champions League and FA Cup and a fall off the pace in the Premier League increased pressure on him.
Such was the club's predicament just over a month ago that Liverpool's departure from Europe's top club competition even brought about suggestions he could be sacked.
Benitez's problems have been compounded by injuries to key players Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard and Yossi Benayoun and the parlous state of the club's finances, which means he has had to resort to scrabbling around in the January transfer window looking for cheap deals.
While Juventus' offer of a get-out in the summer, particularly if Liverpool do not finish in the top four, may seem an attractive proposition, Benitez is standing firm.
"It is a difficult situation. People were talking and there was a lot of speculation in the media," he said.
"I know they (Juventus) were interested, that is part of the game now in football, but I am not ready to talk too much because I don't want to lose my focus.
"I cannot stop speculation all the time. At this moment we are preparing for the game against Bolton (tomorrow).
"I will say I want to fight here, I want to do my job, I want to win and I want to do things here."
The link with the Serie A club comes from the fact Benitez, who speaks Italian well, is a close friend of Juve director Roberto Bettega.
With Liverpool's American owners Tim Hicks and George Gillett struggling to come up with funds for the Spaniard to strengthen his squad either now or even in the close season, Juventus could be a preferable alternative.
Gillett may have recently described Benitez as one of the top five managers in the world but the uneasy relationship between the two Americans means the Reds boss is never too sure if war will break out in the boardroom again, rendering him a pawn in any power game.
If Juve were to ratchet up their campaign to get him on board he might feel it easier to go where he feels appreciated - a sentiment which has not gone unnoticed by the Spaniard.
"For three months people have been saying 'Rafa will be fired, Rafa will be sacked' but I had people in the game telling me 'Be strong, don't give up, think like this'," said Benitez.
"Now it is 'Rafa will leave'. I cannot stop this.
"When you are a manager and you have clubs asking you have to be proud because they are a top side in Europe.
"Juventus is a big club, we have played against them in the Champions League and they know Liverpool are a top side.
"They know it is not easy to do well always in a top side so it is a question of professionals who know the market, they know the managers and how to find someone good enough for them.
"But again I say, I am proud but I'm also really proud to be here. I am really happy here and want to do my job as best I can."
The Juventus speculation has overshadowed Saturday's match at home to Bolton, where Liverpool are looking to maintain their five-match unbeaten run in which they have conceded just once - and that in the 90th minute against Stoke.
A goalless draw against Wolves in midweek meant they fell three points behind fourth-placed Tottenham but Benitez agreed with captain Gerrard after the Wolves game when he said the side are heading in the right direction.
"All I can do is prepare my team properly, to analyse things and try to find solutions to the problems we have," said the Liverpool boss.
"Now we are not losing games and doing a little bit better we have to try to do the same.
"The players know we are improving. Like Stevie said before, maybe we have turned the corner."