Belfast Telegraph

Benitez claims to be 'at ease' amid Liverpool turmoil

By Jason Burt

An air of grievance has hung in the Anfield air for most of this season and that was added to yesterday with Peter Crouch claiming that John Obi Mikel had reacted "like he'd been shot" after the Liverpool striker's crude, two-footed tackle in the Carling Cup quarter-final on Wednesday evening.

Crouch was rightly red-carded for the poor challenge and faces a three-match suspension. But it was also a moment that appeared more born of frustration – following his limited opportunities for Liverpool this campaign – than any real malice and summed up much of what has gone on at the club of late.

Indeed Crouch, despite his popularity and undoubted effectiveness, had been deemed surplus to requirements by Rafael Benitez just a few weeks ago. The manager authorised executives to contact clubs to see what they would bid for the striker, with Aston Villa showing the keenest interest.

That deal, for upwards of £10m, may be shelved given the conflict that has exploded between Benitez and the club's owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks, who are, despite denials, unlikely to sanction any significant sales, or arrivals in the January transfer window.

Benitez has attempted to address the dispute, presenting himself as an increasingly conciliatory figure following his outbursts, and went even further in an interview published in Spain yesterday when he claimed he wanted to extend his contract beyond 2010.

"I am quite at ease," Benitez told the Sport newspaper. "I would like to fulfil my contract and extend it, if possible. My family has settled very well and, to me, the respect and appreciation of the public in England is incredible.

"We are already very close to winning the Premier League. We are now eight points ahead of what we had last year and we have made progress in the Champions League. We are in a good position, but others also invest, progress and evolve."

The sentiment is undoubtedly true and it's interesting that, despite having more than two years to run, Benitez, having flirted with Real Madrid earlier this year, is talking about a longer contract. He also attempted to play down the conflict with the Americans, whom he met on Sunday evening for talks, but admitted: "There is a difference in language and a significant distance. I think there must be better lines of communication."

Of even greater significance – and a clear message to his employers – was another quote: "40,000 signatures on the internet supported me to continue at the Liverpool helm. The signatures came from Australia, or from Asia. Many supporters of Liverpool around the world are supporting a coach who has won major titles for the club."

Crouch, meanwhile, will have to face up to the frustration of being banned following the 2-0 defeat to Chelsea. The England international, however, insisted that his dismissal could have been avoided if referee Martin Atkinson had pulled Mikel up for an earlier foul.

Crouch said: "Mikel came in with his studs up and that was in the back of my mind. Then I thought there was another foul and obviously I've lost my head. There are no excuses for my tackle, but if the referee had pulled the foul up when he should have done, it wouldn't have happened. A lot was going their way and I think frustration got the better of me."

"If you go in on Frank Lampard, or John Terry would they roll around like Obi Mikel did? Foreign players have brought a lot to our game, but that's something you don't want to see. I didn't catch him but he's gone down like he's been shot."

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