By Jason Burt
Rafael Benitez has been told he has to sell before he can buy more players for Liverpool – with Aston Villa hoping to sign both Peter Crouch and Scott Carson in the January transfer window.
A £10m deal is thought to be already in place for Carson to turn his season-long loan spell at Villa Park into a permanent move while the club's manager Martin O'Neill has told Liverpool he intends to bid for Crouch. He would also cost upwards of £10m. Both players featured for England in last night's friendly against Austria, with Carson making his debut.
If Benitez, who is under pressure to deliver trophies, having spent more than £40m last summer with the arrival of players such as Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel, can secure the deals he will make a move for the Racing Santander central defender Ezequiel Garay. With Daniel Agger injured, although soon to return to fitness, and Sami Hyypia an unconvincing replacement, Benitez desperately needs to shore up his defence for the rest of the campaign having been prevented, by an arbitration panel, from signing Gabriel Heinze.
Garay, a 21-year-old and, like Heinze, Argentinian, is also likely to cost around £10m with Benitez expected to seek a buyer for John Arne Riise as he attempts to balance the books further and keep the club's American owners happy. Riise has just 18 months left on his contract and is unlikely to be offered a new deal.
It means that Liverpool could be one of the busiest clubs when the transfer window opens. It's also a clear sign that Benitez got his calculations wrong during the summer while selling two English players and buying another foreigner will only add more fuel to the growing debate over quotas – especially as the Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, has already expressed his concern.
The departure of Carson is wholly expected, given that the 22-year-old has spent virtually all of his Liverpool career on loan, including last season at Charlton Athletic, since he joined from Leeds United for £750,000 in 2005. The sale represents a tidy profit for Liverpool even if some will be disappointed Benitez never gave any indication that the highly regarded goalkeeper would be allowed to challenge Pepe Reina as the club's No 1.
Liverpool set the ball rolling for Crouch's expected transfer by contacting a number of Premier League clubs earlier this week, partly in an effort to drive the price for the 26-year-old as high as possible. Portsmouth and Newcastle United would like to sign Crouch but Villa – like Portsmouth, one of his former clubs – have shown the greatest interest. Manchester City, after an initial interest, prefer to pursue the Brazilian Afonso Alves from the Dutch club Heerenveen. His fee and wages would be cheaper.
No price has yet been discussed for Crouch, although Villa will probably have to break their transfer record which was set only last January when they bought Ashley Young – who also made his England debut against the Austrians – from Watford for £9.65m.
Crouch has prospered since Liverpool beat West Ham to his signature two years ago with a £7m move from Southampton, winning 23 caps for England and scoring 12 goals for his country, but he has undoubtedly fallen down the pecking order of strikers with the arrival of Torres and Dirk Kuyt.
There has been some talk of friction within the Liverpool camp, and claims that Crouch has an attitude problem, but these are wide of the mark.
Benitez himself has rejected such suggestions and, even though he has used Crouch, who remains extremely popular with Liverpool fans, sparingly he said recently: "He's a nice boy, a good professional, a good players. It is clear that this team now, with four strikers, creates more competition for places, but I don't have any problems because Crouch is a good player."
It seems certain that his departure is driven mainly by economic reasons, given Liverpool's high spending under Benitez, who will now use Babel more in his preferred position as a central striker rather than seek a replacement for Crouch.