As Liverpool contemplate how to overcome Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Europa League semifinal and thus ensure that a season of unremitting gloom ends with a distinctly silver lining, a fresh burst of controversy threatens to buffet the steadying Anfield ship off course.
It hardly defied the realms of impossibility that Manchester City would be interested in snatching Fernando Torres away from the Kop, but Roberto Mancini’s open courting of the Spaniard demonstrated just how determined he is to get him.
He said: “We are a top team and I think all the top teams are interested in Torres.
“For me, he is with Carlos [Tevez], Rooney, Messi, Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo as the best in Europe. Fernando is a fantastic striker; all the teams in Europe would like him."
City are a club who now habitually make bold statements, first breaking the transfer record to sign Robinho and then prising Carlos Tevez away from Old Trafford, but few statements would have as much impact as managing to sign Torres.
There’s no doubt they have the cash, which as Mancini said yesterday “probably” gave City an advantage, and qualification for next year’s Champions League would be an even bigger incentive for a striker like Torres, who should be playing against Europe’s finest year after year.
Yet having the means to sign him, and actually signing him are two very different things, and judging by Rafael Benitez’s bullish stance yesterday, there is little sign of him wanting to let Torres leave.
Speaking after Liverpool’s 1-0 defeat in Spain, he said: “We have said repeatedly that Fernando is not for sale and he has three years of his contract remaining. So how can they sign a player who does not wish to leave?”
While Benitez has a point, given that is own future is something of a talking point, it is one that he cannot guarantee.
Such has been the chaotic nature of Liverpool’s season, as financial mismanagement have severely depleted Benitez’s resources, so the Spaniard’s future comes under the spotlight.
Plenty of talk surrounding Liverpool’s arrival in Spain revolved around reports claiming that Real Madrid had made Benitez their No. 1 target to replace the surely doomed Manuel Pellegrini at the end of the season.
Meanwhile, reports in Italy claimed Benitez was being enticed to Juventus with the offer of an 80 million Euro transfer fund, and the promise that six of his backroom staff would immediately join him in Turin.
Given that these two jobs could provide Benitez with the kind of fiscal resources and opportunities that are unlikely to be afforded to him while Liverpool remained owned by George Gillett and Tom Hicks, they will hold plenty of attractions for him.
Yet Benitez has always professed his loyalty to the Anfield club regardless of the woes that have afflicted them this season, and there is a strong body of support around the club who insist that their manager, who only signed a five-year contract last year, will stay.
Yet much as Liverpool are confident of keeping Benitez they will know that his future very much depends on whether Torres stays or goes, and in turn the future of their striker is very much dependent on their manager.
Earlier this year, when similar rumours emanated about Torres leaving Liverpool, Benitez told The Times : "I’m confident it will never happen. If it did, I’d resign."
As Liverpool face what could be a key summer of rebuilding given the manner in which they have regressed while others such as Tottenham and City have progressed, first and foremost keeping these two at Anfield will be key.
Torres’ merits and values need not be mentioned, but were Liverpool to allow Benitez to depart then they may struggle to find appropriate replacements either able to replace Benitez, or willing to step into the tricky political situation surrounding the ownership battle at Anfield which may yet take time to resolve.
Were Benitez to depart now, the only likely names available to Liverpool would be the likes of Mark Hughes, perhaps Laurent Blanc if he turns down the French job, or even Martin O’Neill, should the discontent at Villa Park continue.
All are good, capable managers—but would they really fare any better than Benitez has under the circumstances, or have the substance to convince players such as Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano, or even the crown jewel Steven Gerrard that their long-term future is best served at Anfield?
Perhaps that is why the future of Torres depends so much on the future of Benitez—and vice versa. Liverpool cannot afford to let one go, without severely risking losing the other.
Should they decide to cash-in on Torres then Benitez’s position becomes untenable, but if they let Benitez go then the likelihood of Torres leaving greatly increases, such is the significance of both men to fulfilling their ambitions at the club.
Last summer Liverpool sold two Spaniards, Alvaro Arbeloa and Xabi Alonso, whose departures are cited as major factors to their failure this season; yet, were they to sell their other two Spaniards then the impact would be catastrophic.
And so to Thursday and the second leg. Liverpool hope to salvage one silver lining from a season of disappointment, but if they let either Torres or Benitez walk away before the end of the season, then a disappointing season could quickly turn into a disastrous one.