No sign of resolution to Liverpool conundrum

LONDON - Up for sale and saddled with debt, a squad in need of an overhaul and a manager that splits the club and its supporters - Liverpool are a long way from their famous glory days.

Without a league title in 20 years and any trophy in the last four, Liverpool were expected to challenge for the Premier League this season and contend with Europe's Champions League elite.

Reality for the 18-times league champions is a likely seventh-place finish and Europa League football next season - a competition they failed to win this year having suffered early Champions League elimination.

Outgoing American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks have taken much of the criticism for recent failings after ladening the club with huge debts but manager Rafa Benitez has played a more significant part.

Over 100 players have passed through Anfield's revolving door during the Spaniard's six-year tenure with a reported 230 million pounds spent.

A miraculous 2005 Champions League win had earned him the loyalty of the Kop and while many on Merseyside still admire the 50-year-old others have lost optimism of repeated success.

Benitez may well have too. Italian side Juventus have been linked in the media with a move for him while in press conferences he has been reluctant to speak of his Liverpool future beyond this season.

"I have had massive offers over the last year and I decided to stay because of the fans," Benitez said recently.

"The fans are the main thing, the best thing, that the club has. For one year, I have been working very hard, trying to do my best, and we will see what happens in the future."

Juventus will not confirm or deny such stories but some of their players including goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon have praised the former Valencia man in recent weeks.

"His CV speaks for itself. He gives the impression of being a coach who can handle difficult situations, managerial situations," Buffon told Italy's Sky TV.

COSTLY DECISIONS

Liverpool's dilemma is that the close season may not be long enough to address a list of problems in time for a new campaign with Champions League soccer a minimum aim.

The club's sale, being overseen by new chairman Martin Broughton, could delay the four or five top class signings Benitez believes are necessary for improvement.

On Thursday, Hicks said it could take up to two years for any sale to complete, ending critical fans' hopes of a swift exit and a strong transfer kitty courtesy of new owners.

If Benitez does leave at the end of the season the club must appoint a successor before any rebuilding can start and in the meantime hold on to coveted players such a Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

Alternatively, if Benitez decides to stay put he will be expected to considerably improve the side.

His transfer successes have clearly been Torres, Javier Mascherano and Pepe Reina but the list of failures is much longer. Fernando Morientes, Jermaine Pennant, Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena and Albert Riera were signed for a combined total of almost 40 million pounds and have all flopped.

Many others have hardly featured at all before being shownthe exit.

Benitez's situation is somewhat unique. The Spaniard reportedly has four years remaining on his contract and Liverpool are unlikely to sanction a costly release by sacking him. Likewise any interested parties can expect to pay a big fee for his services.

Any Liverpool fans hoping for a straightforward British summer time pre-season should expect a cloud over Merseyside until this complicated conundrum concludes.

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