Rafa Benitez's six-year reign at Anfield came to an end last night as he left Liverpool, officially by mutual consent after a fractious season of underachievement and unrest. The Spaniard called his exit "sad" after his representatives negotiated a severance package of around £6 million (Dh32.2m).
A Champions League winner in his first season on Merseyside, Benitez only led Liverpool to seventh place in the Premier League last season. He is known to have had an awkward relationship with Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the club's co-owners, but departed praising the fans, with whom he retained his popularity. "It is very sad for me to announce that I will no longer be manager of Liverpool. I would like to thank all of the staff and players for their efforts," he said in a statement.
"I'll always keep in my heart the good times I've had here, the strong and loyal support of the fans in the tough times and the love from Liverpool. I have no words to thank you enough for all these years and I am very proud to say that I was your manager. Thank you so much once more and always remember: You'll never walk alone." Martin Broughton, the chairman who was appointed by Hicks and Gillett in their attempts to sell the club, added: "Rafa will forever be part of Liverpool folklore after bringing home the Champions League following the epic final in Istanbul but after a disappointing season both parties felt a fresh start would be best for all concerned.''
That season included 19 defeats, with Liverpool exiting the Champions League at the group stage and losing to Championship side Reading in the FA Cup. Although Liverpool finished second in the Premier League in 2009, Benitez had gone four years without winning silverware. Christian Purslow, the managing director, and Kenny Dalglish, the Kop legend and club ambassador, are leading the search for Benitez's successor. Dalglish, the last Liverpool manager to win the league title - way back in 1989/90 - would be a popular choice either as a stop-gap appointment or in the long term.
Martin O'Neill, the Aston Villa manager, is the favourite to succeed the Spaniard, while Fulham's Roy Hodgson and Turkey's Guus Hiddink have also been linked. However, Liverpool's financial problems and instability, which are thought to have left Benitez dissatisfied, may hamper their search with potential candidates deterred by the uncertainty about the club's future and the lack of funds. They recorded a loss of £55m for the last financial year and have debts of £350m, while it was reported that Benitez's transfer budget for the summer would have been as low as £5m.
However, Liverpool found the funds to pay off Benitez. While the remaining four years of a contract that was due to run until 2014 would have brought him an income of a further £16m, Liverpool initially only offered £3m in compensation. A compromise was reached, partly, it is thought, because Benitez knew he had lost the backing of the board. Sources close to the Spaniard have denied that player power was a factor in the club's decision to part company with him. Nevertheless, there has been dressing-room unrest, some caused by the club's poor form.
Steven Gerrard, the captain, has been targeted by Real Madrid while star striker Fernando Torres has been linked with Chelsea and Manchester City though, in both cases, Liverpool's plight is cited as the greatest factor for their discontent. He could find employment in Italy. Juventus wanted him to replace Ciro Ferrera earlier this season. But while Benitez delayed, they appointed Luigi del Nero. Both Inter Milan, after Jose Mourinho left for Real Madrid, and AC Milan, who parted company with Leonardo, are now looking for a manager. Benitez, who speaks some Italian and is currently on holiday in Sardinia, has been linked with Inter. That, however, is the future. For now, an era has ended at Anfield. Benitez, the hero of Istanbul, has been consigned to Liverpool's past.
Martin O'Neill: The Northern Irishman, pictured, recently pledged his future to Aston Villa, though it is thought he would relish the chance to manage Liverpool. A charismatic man-manager. Roy Hodgson: Overachieved with limited resources at Fulham, particularly last season when they reached the Europa League final. An expert organiser who would offer a wealth of experience. Kenny Dalglish: A Liverpool club legend and club ambassador who won three titles as manager at Anfield including there last triumph 20 years ago. Has been in semi-retirement for a decade though. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org