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Saturday, April 19, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool perseveres as owners air dirty laundry in public


LONDON — It says much about the new wave of Premier League owners that a hugely popular manager who feels his position is being undermined is considering his future despite continued success, while one jeered by the club's fans seems set to remain in charge.

Christopher Davies

Rafa Benitez of Liverpool and Chelsea's Avram Grant go head-to-head on Tuesday in the Champions League semifinal, first leg but the buildup to the Anfield showdown has been dominated by board room back-stabbing and dirty laundry being washed in public on the red half of Merseyside.

Under previous regimes Liverpool chairmen and directors rarely spoke. These days, the American co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, don't talk to each other but they have plenty to say in public, almost perfecting the ignominious art of verbal own goals.

The center of attention over the past two weeks has not been Liverpool's potential third Champions League final in four years under Benitez. Instead the focus has been on the co-owners and chief executive Rick Parry with Benitez understandably demanding straight answers because "I feel my position is being undermined."

This is initially because of Hicks' ill-advised revelation that the two Americans had talks last November in New York with Jurgen Klinsmann as "insurance" because there were media reports that Benitez could be on his way to Real Madrid this summer.

It is incredible to think a club's co-owners could act in this way on the strength (or weakness) of media stories.

Benitez was not happy when he learned what had gone on behind his back and was even less happy to discover last week that Parry was involved in the initial Klinsmann talks, with Hicks and Gillett having a second meeting in California with the German, who becomes coach at Bayern Munich this summer.

Hicks passed the Klinsmann buck to Gillett.

"I didn't know who Jurgen was. I had to look up on the Internet who he was. George was friends with him and he was the instigator," Hicks said.

"The co-owner of a top English club has no awareness of the coach of Germany at the 2006 World Cup and who lives in California where Hicks has a holiday home. The words "plot" and "lost" spring to mind here.

The Klinsmann meetings could probably have remained secret, but Hicks and Gillett are a media dream, revealing all unprompted.

Throw in the public statement by Hicks that he feels Parry has been a failure as chief executive, wanting him sacked, and you have a soap opera being acted out on the back pages.

It makes Liverpool's impressive form on the pitch even more remarkable.

The relationship between Hicks and Gillett has broken down with both trying to paint the other as the villain of the piece.

"If George doesn't sell — because I am not going to sell — I guess we stay in this position that we are in but I hope to be in a position to make him a very good offer."

Hicks called Parry "arrogant" while in turn Parry said it has been "a nightmare" working under Hicks.

Benitez has been privately critical of Parry — who has the support of Gillett — only because Hicks wants the chief executive to go.

Needless to say, Benitez has little or no time for Hicks and/or Gillett.

"If I were to buy George out, the first thing I would do is offer Rafa a one-year extension."

That will excite Benitez about as much as undergoing root canal treatment.

Apart from that everything between the Anfield power brokers is fine.

* * * * *

LIVERPOOL FANS are united behind Rafa Benitez. On the other hand, Chelsea supporters are similarly against Avram Grant, who was booed by many of the frustrated Stamford Bridge faithful during Monday's lethargic 1-1 draw with Wigan, which all but ended the Blues' hopes of winning the Premier League.

Few managers of a team second in the league and in the Champions League semifinals have been jeered in such a manner.

Despite Chelsea's results, its football rarely raises the pulse yet word is billionaire Roman Abramovich — at the opposite end of the vocal scale to Liverpool's co-owners — is ready to stand by the Israeli whatever the club's European fate.

Chelsea fans tolerated the departure of the Special One, Jose Mourinho, when it became obvious Stamford Bridge was not big enough to accommodate both his and Abramovich's egos, because they knew the club needed the Russian's financial backing.

Abramovich may not speak in public, but he is not deaf to public opinion about the Average One, yet seems likely to remain faithful to the unpopular Grant.

The manager's team selections, tactics and substitutions have been a subject of criticism, yet Chelsea is still likely to finish second to a terrific Manchester United team in the Premier League and is 180 minutes from the Champions League final.

The Blues-Reds semifinal ties are unlikely to provide the high level of skill and drama that Liverpool's quarterfinal win over Arsenal did.

Twice in the last four years, Chelsea's dreams of reaching its first Champions League final has ended at Anfield, following 1-0 defeats in the second leg of their semifinals in 2005 and 2007.

Liverpool, five-time European champions, has won its last seven semifinals in the competition, a record that contrasts starkly with that of a Chelsea side beaten in its three previous attempts.



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