By JOHN EDWARDS
Rafa Benitez will deliver a stark ultimatum to his Liverpool bosses after becoming exasperated with their refusal to sanction his January transfer plans.
After several failed attempts to clarify how much he has to spend, a frustrated Benitez is ready to tell George Gillett and Tom Hicks to dig deep or consider whether they should start looking for a new manager.
Liverpool's co-owners will sit down with Benitez when they visit Anfield for the December 16 showdown with Manchester United and it promises to be as fiery off the pitch as on it after the manager made little secret yesterday of the rift that has developed in recent weeks.
With a £6million pay- off written into his contract in the event of the sack, Benitez is unlikely to quit. But he could test the patience of Hicks and Gillett to the point where they decide to act, if he is anything like as tetchy as at a Melwood press conference yesterday to preview tomorrow's game at Newcastle.
Matters came to a head earlier this week when the Americans deferred an answer on Benitez's spending power until next month's meeting and urged him to 'concentrate on coaching the team' in the meantime.
Riled at what he sees as another example of their dragging their heels, a monosyllabic Benitez straight-batted any mention of Newcastle or England's Euro 2008 demise by saying: 'I can only focus on training and coaching my team.' He even resorted to using the England vacancy to exert more pressure on his bosses by claiming he might have an interest in succeeding Steve McClaren.
Asked if he should be taken seriously, he replied, enigmatically: 'It is your decision. You never know what might happen in the future. Yes, I am being serious.'
He is anxious for confirmation he can complete the £17m signing of on-loan midfielder Javier Mascherano and is looking for a further £18m to add Racing Santander's Argentina centre back Ezequiel Garay and Heerenveen's Brazil striker Afonso Alves to his squad.
Although he spent around £45m in the summer on Fernando Torres, Ryan Babel and Yossi Benayoun, he has become increasingly impatient over a lack of communication from owners in the past two months.
Hicks and Gillett were dismayed by his post-Champions League Final outburst last May, when he accused them of 'all talk and no action', and they appear just as put out by his latest agitating after issuing a statement reiterating that they will not be browbeaten into parting with more funds.
Ominously for Benitez, there was a strong hint that his plea for cash could hinge on Liverpool's Champions League fate, with victory over Porto (home) and Marseille (away) needed if they are to reach the knockout stages.
The Americans are trying to juggle huge sums as they decide on how much should go on a new stadium and commercial activities and how much towards transfers.