Dominic Fifield at Anfield
Thursday March 16, 2006
Rafael Benítez last night snuffed out Real Madrid's lingering hopes of luring him back to the Bernabéu by agreeing in principle a new four-year contract with Liverpool. Worth about £10m, it will effectively extend his stay on Merseyside by one year to 2010. His side duly maintained the optimistic mood in these parts by conjuring their most riotous win of the season to dismiss Fulham as the Kop chorused his name.
Once the delirium dies down, confirmation that Benítez is to remain at the club will be greeted more with relief. Liverpool's attempts to attract investment continue, with the size of the manager's summer transfer budget still to be determined, so the emergence of interest from Real and Internazionale in the 45-year-old had cast a disconcerting shadow over the European champions.
Real's intent was most threatening given that Benítez began his career at the club and retains emotional ties with them. Indeed a poll conducted in the Spanish sports newspaper Marca confirmed that 34% of Real fans favoured a move for the former Valencia coach, with Fabio Capello second on 31%. It is understood that the recently appointed Real president Fernando Martín was willing to double Benítez's wages and offer him considerable clout in the market.
Those attempts have now been deflected. The Spaniard's agent, Manuel García Quilón, spent yesterday in talks with the Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry and the contract is likely to be signed in the next 48 hours. "We are talking," Benítez said. "I am happy, they are happy, so it's not a problem. We are talking about the future but, apart from some autographs, I've not signed anything else yet."
The extension will be symbolic, designed as it is to underline the future longevity of Benitez's stay though in the circumstances the revival of Liverpool's pursuit of second place with this thumping of Fulham was nothing if not timely. Benítez, never comfortable in the limelight, must have been relieved that the team's win stole the attention and most critically, that the strikers who have been spluttering of late came good.
That they did so simultaneously was to the visitors' dismay. This scoreline flattered Liverpool in that the substitutes Peter Crouch, touching in after Steven Gerrard had volleyed Djibril Cissé's cross back across goal, and Stephen Warnock scored late on. The latter's was his first for the club, knocked in after Tony Warner had blocked Steve Finnan's close-range attempt. Yet it was only near the end that the hosts suppressed Fulham's threat.
The visitors had actually recovered an early deficit, clawing level when Collins John burst on to Luis Boa Morte's pass to squeeze a low shot through José Reina. They later struck a post with Zat Knight's towering header before subsiding at the last, leaving them eight points above the relegation cut-off without an away win all season. "The last two minutes make it look as if we've been smashed up, but I can't rip into the lads tonight," said Chris Coleman, whose side host Chelsea on Sunday. "We asked them questions."
Most of the answers were provided by Liverpool's forward line and, typically, Robbie Fowler. The Kop had been waiting for the striker to make his mark, and here at last was the reward. Some 16 minutes in Harry Kewell's corner was nodded on by Luis Garcia for Fowler, peeling away at the far post to head into the gaping net. It was his 172nd goal for Liverpool - drawing level with Kenny Dalglish as the fifth highest scorer in the club's history - with Fulham having endured his first back in 1993. "I've waited a long time for this," said Fowler, "but I'm on my way again."
Michael Brown's own goal, poked in after Fowler and García had freed Kewell on the right, restored Liverpool's lead after John's reply and while they lacked the effervescence of earlier this term, Liverpool broke with venom. García hit the angle of post and bar before Fernando Morientes rammed in his first goal since December after Cissé's header was palmed out by Warner. "To see all the strikers involved in the goals was important," Benítez added. "They were playing well, but they needed to score. Maybe we can finish talking about them now." Talk of the manager's future can be put to bed as well.
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