THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Sunday 22 February ~

Liverpool's home fixture with Man City this afternoon is their first game in a fortnight, a break that has been filled with more pushing and shoving over the manager's contract. Earlier this week Rafa Benitez turned down a new offer, for the fifth time this season. Negotiations (if that is the right term for a procedure that may simply involve someone saying "Sign it!" while Benitez replies "No!") will resume after the Champions League fixture with Real Madrid on Wednesday. But there seems little doubt that the hold-up is not being caused by the specific details of how much control Benitez will have over transfers or the youth academy. The manager will stay provided someone else leaves.

Via manoeuvrings that will one day form the basis for a very tedious book, Benitez is allied with one of the club's two owners, Tom Hicks against the other owner, George Gillett and the club's chief executive Rick Parry whose personal relationship with his manager appears to have irrevocably broken down. That Parry hasn't departed yet is due to fact that club's ownership is split on a 50-50 basis between the two Americans, so no-one person can take definitive decisions - something that is unlikely to be resolved until the Americans sell up, which may happen in the summer.

In the meantime Benitez continues to make his discontent clear - occasionally through off-the-record chats with friendly journalists but mostly in public through his various interviews and pre-match press conferences. So far his distinctly whiny public demeanour has not brought much criticism from Liverpool supporters and that probably won't change until the teams title chances have finally evaporated or they're out of Europe. Whether or not his side progress against Real Madrid in the Champions League, Benitez's contractual limbo increases the likelihood of his being approached to return to the Bernabeu where he was once a youth coach.

Meanwhile there is no such uncertainty surrounding the manager of Liverpool's opponents today. There will be general astonishment if Mark Hughes keeps his job at Man City beyond the end of this season. The sour atmosphere that has built up around Hughes's squad is further demonstrated by today's revelations of a falling out between the empty room-botherer Craig Bellamy and Robinho. The last major spat Bellamy had with team mates was at a training camp before Liverpool's Champions League tie in Barcelona two years ago, after which he scored in his side's 2-1 win. He plays against one of his many former clubs today but the target of three wins that City still need to be safe from the drop is unlikely to be reduced by one this afternoon.

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