English Angle: Who Could Succeed Rafael Benitez At Liverpool?

As uncertainty mounts over Rafa the gaffer's long-term prospects at Anfield, Goal.com's Mike Maguire mulls over who could replace the Spaniard, should he leave...
Liverpool are in the midst of what could end up as their best season in decades. They may be out of the FA Cup and League Cup, but are maintaining a genuine push for the Premier League title and will face Real Madrid next week in the last 16 of the Champions League.

And yet, Rafael Benitez's future is in serious doubt.

The Spanish manager is presently embroiled in talks over a new contract, and he has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the slowness of the negotiation process.

Indeed, in a 'catch 22' of sorts, it is Benitez's desire to speed up the way things are done at Anfield that is causing the stall: he wants more control over transfers, but it is a privilege club co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett seem reluctant to grant.

The former Valencia coach's outspokenness on such matters has hardly helped, and he hinted in the press recently that he could leave in the summer if a deal is not struck by then - regardless of what the Reds achieve this season.

If that should be the case, who would be worthy of fashioning their own groove in the Anfield hot-seat? That is what we intend to find out. And in light of recent calls for British bosses to be given opportunities at top clubs, we've decided to focus primarily on home-grown candidates...

Martin O'Neill, Aston Villa

This man is the one most observers believe is ready to step up to a 'Big Four' job. Since taking over at Villa Park in 2006, O'Neill has transformed a relegation-threatened club into Champions League contenders - and this term, they're even an outside chance for the title.

The Ulsterman's CV reads very well indeed. In the early 1990s he took Wycombe Wanderers to the Football League for the first time in their history; they reached the old Second Division under his tenure. His Leicester City side won the League Cup twice, and they never finished outside the Premier League top ten during his reign. Then came the Celtic years, during which he re-established the Hoops as the best team in Scotland and led them into the Champions League.

Thus, with the Villans now battling for the UEFA Cup and sitting third in the league, O'Neill's credentials are there for all to see. Whether he is right for Liverpool, though, is up for debate. His recent spats with the club and Benitez over Gareth Barry aside, one must remember that he was part of the Nottingham Forest team who enjoyed a fierce rivalry with the Merseysiders during the late 1970s and '80s.

Speaking of fierce rivalries...

David Moyes, Everton

It might surprise some that the Scot had only held one managerial position - at Preston North End - before succeeding Walter Smith at Goodison Park in 2002. Not unlike O'Neill, he took a struggling side and led them back to Europe - most famously to the Champions League in 2005, beating the Reds to fourth place. The Toffees have managed a UEFA Cup spot in every season since, and they are expected to maintain that record this season.

If there is such a thing as a natural gaffer, Moyes is it. He set about attaining his coaching badges at just 22 years of age, so the vast majority of his playing career was spent preparing for life in the technical area. His exploits with a club whose results far outweigh their financial clout have impressed all and sundry, and some have even tipped him as the heir to Sir Alex Ferguson's throne at Old Trafford.

The top brass on the other side of Stanley Park, however, may hope the Glaswegian instead decides to follow in Kenny Dalglish's footsteps.

Steve Bruce, Wigan Athletic

Why are the top British candidates decidedly anti-Liverpool? As a member of the great Man United team of the mid-1990s, Bruce is another who would have to change his stripes to take the Reds' reins. Not all Kopites would be against such an appointment, though.

Football fans on Merseyside know quality when they see it, and there is an undercurrent of respect for this Manc on the coast of the Irish Sea. Only once have Benitez's men beaten a Bruce-managed side in league play, and that came in the controversial 3-2 thriller against Wigan Athletic earlier this season.

After ending his six-year stint at Birmingham City to steer the Latics clear of relegation last term, the 48-year-old assembled a team that currently sit seventh in the Premier League standings. However, the inability to keep star performers - such as Wilson Palacios and Emile Heskey - at the JJB could drive him to a club with more spending power, should such an opportunity arise.

Sammy Lee, Liverpool (Assistant Manager)

Finally, a local lad. Lee's credentials in top-flight management may not read as well as those of the others on this list; his only job as the (little) big boss came at Bolton Wanderers, and that was a near-disastrous and short-lived stint in the wake of Sam Allardyce's exit.

However, there are many factors in his favour. He's a native Liverpudlian; he knows the club inside-out, having spent 11 trophy-filled years at the club as a player; since he replaced Paco Ayestaran as Benitez's right-hand man, the team's results have picked up noticeably; and his rapport with the Spanish players and staff is excellent, thanks to his years with Osasuna.

This appointment would be a throwback to the Boot Room era at Anfield, which effectively ended when Roy Evans left in the late '90s. Many of the more senior supporters would likely welcome him to the top job, but one can't help but think that his track record - or lack thereof, perhaps - might count against him.

Jose Mourinho, Inter

The one 'foreigner' in this motley crew, and unquestionably the most qualified of all the candidates. Everyone knows what he did at Chelsea: harnessed the power of Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba & Co. to lead the Blues to back-to-back Premier League crowns, an FA Cup and a League Cup in three years.

Now in Italy, he's odds on to steer Inter to their fourth consecutive Scudetto, and yet his time in Serie A could come to an abrupt halt at season's end. His 'self-assured' attitude has put him offside with the local press, and failure to deliver the Champions League title could see him go the way of Roberto Mancini.

The Portuguese recently declared his desire to return to Stamford Bridge one day. However, in months prior, he stated that he would like to return to England - but not necessarily Chelsea. That led to speculation  concerning Manchester City, United and Liverpool, where he was a top candidate to succeed Gerard Houllier before Benitez got the gig.

The Verdict

All these potential options, bar Lee, have endured some sort of feud with Rafa the gaffer or Liverpool. However, contrary to popular belief, leopards do change their spots from time to time. Matt Busby was an Anfield legend, after all...

First, the process of elimination. Lee, while all Kopites would love to see him lead the side to glory, hasn't the experience or perhaps even the capability to do the job. He's a brilliant No. 2, a great link between the manager and the players, but at the Reebok he clearly struggled to break away from that mould and establish his own persona as a manager.

Moyes is the next least likely. Face it, he's been at Everton around seven years now, and Merseyside rivalry is not as friendly as it once was. Gone are the days of the Nick Barmby and Peter Beardsley transfers - if Moyes crossed the picket-line, he'd be waking up with the severed head of a different animal on his pillow each morning.

Bruce is not quite as far-fetched, given his excellent record against the Reds, but O'Neill and Mourinho would have to be the frontrunners of this mob. And one thinks the fans would fancy the former. 'The Special One' is renowned for getting results without paying too much attention to style; the Villa boss, though, has constructed winning teams that are very good to watch. And the Kopites crave eye-pleasing yet very effective football.

However, 'MON' has never managed an elite European club. The step up is a big one, and one that many promising mid-table managers have failed to negotiate. Can he do the job, or is Mourinho the better bet?

Or should Hicks and Gillett just keep hold of Rafa Benitez while he still wants to be there?

Mike Maguire, Goal.com