RAFAEL Benitez has kept his options open over a potential summer move to Juventus by admitting he is flattered by the interest in him from the Italian side.
Liverpool responded to the developments by formally reminding Juventus that Benitez is under contract until 2014 and warned that they will take legal action should it come to light that their manager has been the subject of an illegal approach.
Having previously kept his counsel over Juventus's desire to recruit him as coach, the Liverpool manager finally broke his silence on the matter yesterday. He revealed that not only was he "proud" to attract the attentions of a club he considers to be one of Europe's finest, but he was also unwilling to commit his long-term future to the Merseyside club.
The timing of Benitez's admission came within hours of Juventus confirming the interim appointment of Alberto Zaccheroni, the former AC Milan coach, to replace Ciro Ferrara, who was sacked yesterday.
Benitez grasped the opportunity presented to him by Juventus's overtures to put pressure on his present employers to come up with the level of financial backing that he feels is necessary to turn Liverpool into genuine title challengers in the Premier League and beyond.
This latest gambit comes with an inherent risk. By allowing himself to be linked with European rivals when his stock is arguably at its lowest since becoming Liverpool manager in 2004, the Spaniard risks alienating those elements of support that view such public flirtations as near-treason.
Benitez will be hoping that the fans who once marched to keep him in a job will view the ploy as an attempt to force Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the club's unpopular owners, to provide him with much-needed backing in the transfer market rather than the beginnings of an exit strategy.
"When you have clubs asking about you, you have to be proud," Benitez said. "It (Juventus) is a big club, one of the top clubs in Europe, but I am really pleased and happy to be here. I know they were interested, but I don't want to lose my focus.
"We are working very hard in the (financial) conditions that we have at this moment. We have some money that we did not have before because we sold some players. I think we have a new investor or maybe more people coming this year and the possibility of a new stadium is a big boost for everyone here.
"We have to trust and have the belief that they will happen. In the meantime, we can talk about names in the market, players who are available for free, and that means we can prove that we want to go forward and we can prove that we can manage sometimes without big money.
"Everyone wants to see the team and the club progress and I think we are going in the right direction but we have to move forward.
"Sometimes this means signing players who are good and are available in the market.
"Sometimes it is changing things and the key is the stadium and the new investors."
Juventus have Zaccheroni under contract until the end of the season. In the event that Benitez stays on Merseyside, having been convinced that Liverpool's £240m debt will no longer be a hindrance to his squad building, the Bianconeri's shortlist of alternatives includes Marcello Lippi, the Italy coach, Cesare Prandelli, of Fiorentina, and Massimiliano Allegri, the Cagliari coach.
The most obvious way of appeasing Benitez would be to ensure the signings of Marouane Chamakh, of Bordeaux, and Milan Jovanovic, from Standard Liege. The forwards will be available in the summer on free transfers and are keen to move to Anfield.
Jovanovic has stated that he wants assurances that Benitez will be at the club next season before committing himself to a move. The Spaniard, though, remains confident that the lure of Liverpool will help to overcome any such obstacles.
"We are working hard trying to bring players in to improve the squad," Benitez said. "There are some players who are available in the market and we have to continue monitoring them. I would like to improve the squad as much as I can.
"They (possible signings) know that I have four years of contract left and if they want to come, they will come. I am very happy here. I would like to win a lot of games with this club.
"I was fighting before and I will continue fighting every single week, trying to do the best for my club." (© The Times, London)
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