STEVE Bruce has launched a withering attack on Rafael Benitez, accusing him of making a prolonged and "hugely disrespectful" attempt to unsettle Kenwyne Jones as part of an internal power-struggle at Liverpool.
A senior figure at Anfield gave a private briefing this week, claiming that Liverpool have been negotiating for a fortnight with Sunderland over signing Jones on loan, with an option or an obligation to complete a permanent transfer this summer.
Black Cats manager Bruce, though, has ridiculed the suggestion.
"As if I'm going to let a big player and one of our big assets go anywhere on loan," he said. "I don't understand where they're coming from. It's total nonsense, it is ludicrous, it's the biggest load of rubbish. Do me favour.
"It is like me asking for Steven Gerrard on loan. I'll try that, maybe. For the record, Kenwyne is not going on loan to anybody."
Bruce insisted that there has been "no contact whatsoever" from Liverpool regarding Jones, the 25-year-old Trinidad & Tobago striker.
"I don't know whether they are serious or whether Rafa is playing games with his board, but the only people who are suffering are Kenwyne and Sunderland," he said. "This may be all about the problems Liverpool have. It might be power-games."
Liverpool, who are sixth in the Premier League table and have been beset by difficulties on and off the pitch this season, have limited resources in the transfer market and there have been regular episodes of tension between Benitez and the club's American ownership.
Bruce reiterated that any cash offer for Jones, who has also been linked with Birmingham and Stoke, would be considered on its merits -- they reckon he's worth around £15m -- but stressed that he was not looking to off-load the forward, especially with little time left to bring in a replacement.
"Kenwyne must think I'm desperate to ship him out," Bruce said. "I'm not, I'm desperately not.
"I try to be honest -- everybody in football has a price, whether you are Cristiano Ronaldo or Kaka or Kenwyne Jones, but I'm going to have speak to him before we play Portsmouth because he must believe I want to show him the door. This constant badgering of Kenwyne has unsettled the boy.
"I would find it very difficult to sell Kenwyne now with one week to go in the window and the one thing I am not going to do is jeopardise the future of the club.
"Kenwyne has a big part to play in that future. If Liverpool are going to come with a ridiculous amount of money, then who knows?"
Bruce has given up hope of signing Schalke's Germany forward Kevin Kuranyi or Middlesbrough's Adam Johnson.
Having signed centre-back Matthew Kilgallon from Sheffield United, he is pressing for more defensive recruits.
"That's the area we're looking to strengthen," he said.
Guy Demel, the Hamburg and Ivory Coast right-back, has been a long-standing target, but the player's progress in the Africa Cup of Nations has been a complicating factor and no fee has been agreed.
"The deal can't be done," said Bruce, who has submitted a bid for Aston Villa's Habib Beye as his fall-back option. "I like Beye and I'm interested in him," he said. (© The Times, London)